Photo contributed by Dan Henry / Dan Henry runs the Bluff Trail on the side of Lookout Mountain. Henry keeps a face covering handy to pull up whenever he passes others on the trail.

As the spring of COVID-19 has become the summer and likely the fall of COVID-19, people have been forced to learn new ways of going about their lives to live safely with a disease that has upended the world.

Those changes can be felt in many different ways, including changes to how people exercise in the Chattanooga area. For some outdoor enthusiasts, including runners and cyclists, face coverings have become another accessory along with good shoes and breathable athletic clothing.

Local photographer Dan Henry has seen his freelance work impacted by the pandemic and spent much of the spring cooped up at home with his wife in their small apartment. To help maintain his physical and mental fitness during this time, he took to trail running as a way to exercise without being around others. However, as the pandemic has continued, Henry says he has felt an increasing need to be around people while exercising.

"I've been trying to stay healthy, but I also got to the point where I was just really over being alone," he explains. "I'm a social human and I like interacting with other people. I had missed working in coffee shops and being in a team environment.

"Without having work and without having social interactions recreationally, I was just ready to see other people."

On July 6, the Hamilton County Health Department implemented a face mask mandate for the county, requiring face coverings in many settings until at least Sept. 8. While the mandate exempts people exercising in small group settings, exercise is an activity that does pose some risk due to the harder breathing associated, which means more risk of transmission of droplets by those who may be infected but asymptomatic.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor Marisa Colston teaches in the university's athletic training program. She says that having a mask with you while outside is an important safety measure when encountering others in public.

"If you're out walking your dog or going for a run or whatever the activity is, as long as you're beyond a safe distance [you don't need to wear a mask]. But you should have it with you so if you're anywhere you could run into some people and could start talking, then it's best practice to follow the mandate and have the mask ready."

Greg Heath is a retired epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control, a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County COVID-19 Joint Task Force and an adjunct professor in UTC's Department of Health and Human Performance. He says the risk for individual exercise is relatively low, with the bigger risk coming from team sports and those exercising in larger groups.

"My take on masking for outdoor sports is that unless you cannot socially distance, then masks are not necessary for groups of less than 10," says Heath. "Indoor sports in a large gym or fieldhouse with good ventilation, same principles apply."

Henry's use of face coverings follows the guidelines of the Hamilton County mandate. He wears a buff around his neck unless he finds himself running with others or near groups of people. "I don't wear it just all the time. I only pull it up if I'm around other people. I mean, I'm breathing heavy when I'm running, so I'm not trying to breathe all my droplets on others."

Many have complained that face masks are annoying and not comfortable to wear despite the benefits that health officials say can come from their use.

" ... Even just working in an office, I'll be honest and say it's really hard," says Colston. "Combine that with heavy breathing (from exercise), you get to the point where you just want some fresh air."

Henry agrees that exercising with a face covering isn't fun and makes his runs less enjoyable.

"Oh, it's miserable. It's awful," he says. "It just makes me go slower. The physical part of it is not pleasurable. It's tough, and once the face covering is saturated, it's really hard to breathe."

This discomfort likely keeps many from using a mask while exercising. Henry has noticed a lack of face coverings from other athletes. However, he feels it's a small gesture he can make to help control the risk of COVID-19 spread and serve as an example to others.

"I've seen hardly anyone using masks while exercising, and I'm kind of proving a point that you can go out and do it," says Henry. "If anything, people actually stay away from me when I have it on.

"The whole point is to just say that if I can wear this when I'm running, then you can wear it in the grocery store. Just try to take care of other people."

Face masks for fitness

According to an article on the C/Net website, the three main features athletes should look for when shopping for face coverings are a breathable fabric, a good fit and an antimicrobial coating. Athletic wear manufacturers such as Under Armour and Adidas are producing masks specifically designed for use when exercising in a public setting.

Under Armour’s Sportsmask is a popular mask for exercise — so popular that it is currently on backorder on the company’s website. The mask is structured to keep it off your mouth and is made of polyurethane open-cell foam and Under Armour’s Iso-Chill fabric to help keep you cool. This high-tech mask isn’t cheap ($30), and the UA website says it won’t be available until early September, but it is widely cited as the best of the best for exercise.

Hamilton County's mask mandate

" ... All persons in Hamilton County shall wear a facial covering or mask which covers the mouth and nose at all times when indoors in all public and private buildings and when outdoors except under the following exceptions:

"Persons who are outdoors unless the person cannot substantially maintain appropriate social distancing from others outside of the person's household. Facial coverings should, however, be kept accessible in the event of encountering a larger group.

"Persons who are exercising, such as jogging, bicycling, or swimming, etc, either alone or in small groups where physical distancing of 6 feet or greater can be maintained. A facial covering should be kept accessible in the event of encountering a larger group."