Big names such as Simone Biles, Damian Lillard, and Bryson DeChambeau will show face at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, but fans won’t get the chance. Earlier today, Japanese officials declared a state of emergency for Tokyo that runs through the Games. This effectively bars spectators from Olympic venues in the city. “Many people were looking forward to watching at the venues, but I would like everyone to fully enjoy watching the games on TV at home,” said Toyko Governor Yuriko Koike.A different kind of Olympic spiritWith more than 14,800 deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t affect Japan as strongly as other countries, But a new surge in infections along with the more contagious Delta variant of the virus caused officials to act.“Taking into consideration the impact of the Delta strain, and in order to prevent the resurgence of infections from spreading across the country, we need to step up virus prevention measures,” said Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.In addition to the Delta variant, there were concerns about the country’s low vaccination rate. In Japan, 15 percent of residents are fully vaccinated versus 45 percent in the U.S. Recent polls show that a large majority of Japanese citizens prefer to cancel or further postpone the Games. As of yesterday, two Olympic athletes and two workers have tested positive for COVID-19.This is not the first setback that Tokyo 2020 organizers have experienced. In March, officials made a decision to bar overseas spectators. In addition, the Olympic torch run hasn’t been a run at all in Japan. Instead, it’s been a series of ceremonies that aren’t open to the public. And, of course, the 2020 Summer Olympics didn’t occur in 2020. Due to the pandemic, the start of the Olympics was postponed until July 23, 2021.There are a few events outside of Tokyo, such as the marathon, that could still have fans. However, organizers say they would ask spectators not to cheer for runners. It seems that athletes at the Tokyo Olympics will be used to that silence.For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube! More
Screen time is way up since the global pandemic began. While it’s an understandable diversion from life during COVID-19, it’s problematic when it comes to the rest of your health. A new study from scientists at Arizona State University shows the longer someone stares at a TV, phone, or computer screen during the day, the worse their health habits are.
Interestingly, when researchers broke down the screen use and health behaviors of the roughly 1,000 study participants, they found watching TV was linked to the worst eating habits, while smartphone use was most directly correlated to poor sleep. All screen use has some negative health consequences, says Christopher Wharton, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition at Arizona State and co-author of the study, but if you’re going to pick your battles, start by limiting the Netflix binges and shutting off your phone an hour before bed. “Different devices matter for different health behaviors, and we can make more targeted health improvements if we think about use of particular devices,” he says.
Getting away from your devices during COVID takes discipline. “For those who are having to spend more time in front of screens right now for work, such as myself, I take every opportunity to move away from them when work is done,” says Wharton. “I go play with my kids, work out outdoors, do woodworking projects, and pursue new COVID hobbies—I’m learning the violin. All of that delivers way more value for me personally than watching TV, especially after spending my whole day staring at a screen.”
Meanwhile, when you do choose to zone out in front of the tube, keep a bowl of fruit on your coffee table and pre-sliced carrots and cucumbers in a ziplock bag in your fridge so you can pull it out when the game is on. Mindlessly noshing on an entire bowl of fresh veggies with salsa dip vs. a bowl of chips with sour cream dip will save you about 2,000 calories.
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2020 may have upended every aspect of normalcy we both love and loathe, but one thing remains the same: With the fall comes cold and flu season. And this year may be worse than ever if cases of the flu and COVID-19 both surge, creating what Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has repeatedly warned will be the potential for a “twindemic.”
Luckily, there are precautions each of us can take to minimize the chances of getting sick, with either the flu or COVID-19, and increase the chances of recovering faster if we’re unlucky enough to catch one of the many viruses that’ll be swarming in just a month or two.
“You can control your own destiny by keeping your immune function strong so that should you become exposed to a viral pathogen, your body is poised to defend itself,” says Charles Elder, M.D., primary care internist and physician lead for the complementary and integrative medicine program at Kaiser Permanente Northwest.
8 Ways to Prepare for Flu Season During the COVID-19 Pandemic
1. Get Your Flu Shot
The influenza vaccine lowers your risk of getting the flu by 40 to 60 percent on any given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (That’s assuming the circulating viruses match the strains they crafted the formula for.)
Yet only 45 percent of people over the age of 18 got their shot in 2018/19—and most of those numbers were in people above 50, reports the CDC.
Part of the reason is access. Another is skepticism: People don’t think vaccines are safe (they are, all our experts assure). And a huge part is because most people don’t think a 40 to 60 percent chance of protection sounds very high, so getting the shot isn’t worth the effort.
“Even though it’s not 100-percent effective at preventing the flu, some protection is better than none,” says Sandra Kesh, M.D., deputy medical director and infectious disease specialist at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, NY.
For starters, the vaccine lowers your chances of getting influenza by roughly half. “It’s important to remember the flu is a formidable infection in its own right. Influenza can cause inflammation of the lungs, heart, brain, and other organs, leading to respiratory failure, encephalitis, heart failure, sepsis, and death, in the worst cases,” Kesh explains.
At the very least, it knocks you into a deep hole of snot, aches, and pure misery for at least a week, if not longer.
What’s more, lowering your chances of getting influenza lowers your chances of getting everything from a nasty cold to the novel coronavirus itself. “Anytime your body is infected with a virus, there’s the potential for you to be more vulnerable to other infections, including COVID-19,” Kesh explains.
To top it off, if you do get the flu despite having got the vaccine, that shot lowers the chances of you developing complications from the virus, including things like pneumonia.
Everyone should get the flu vaccine unless your doctor advises you not to, Elder adds (the main exception being if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to the shot in the past). Anyone who’s pregnant, very old (65+), or very young (between 6 months and 5 years old) should absolutely get the shot.
And the sooner the better—it takes about two weeks to build antibodies from the shot and influenza activity in the U.S. starts circulating in November, so get your shot by the end of October at the latest, adds Elder.
Talk to your employer about if they’re offering any kind of vaccine program, even out of the office, like the CDC director is currently encouraging companies to do. But you can also schedule your shot at a local pharmacy, doctor’s office, and even in some schools.
2. Keep Exercising—but Don’t Go too Hard
Working out regularly (at a moderate intensity) improves your immune defense and lowers your risk of getting sick, reports a 2019 review in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. In fact, a single workout boosts your immune fortification. Try to get your heart rate up slightly for at least 30 minutes a day, even just for a walk.
To bolster your immune system to provide a strong defense against the flu and COVID-19, cut cut back on the HIIT and two-a-days for the season: The same analysis points out that an athlete’s at a much higher risk of getting sick during periods of intense training and competition. “Exercise should remove stress from, not create stress for, the physiology,” Elder adds.
3. Keep Stress Under Control
“High levels of stress and anxiety can make us more vulnerable to viral infections,” Elder points out. Meditation and mindfulness are two of the best-known stress reducers. If you don’t already have a regular practice, start with this 10-Minute Meditation Session for Beginners.
Even small actions to keep a positive mindset can help keep stress from getting to you, adds Nicole Avena, P.hD., visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University. Her go-to: When a situation is exhausting or annoying, try and list three good things about it. Maybe you had to take off work to help your brother-in-law move again, but at least it made your partner happy, you got a workout in, and you helped someone.
4. Up Your Produce Intake
“Micronutrient deficiencies can have an impact on how well your body is able to defend against colds and flu,” says Avena. “Food in general can be your best ally when it comes to keeping your immune system strong and staying healthy.”
We don’t have definitive data on which vitamins and minerals affect your immune system most, but aiming to focus on getting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in a day will up your fortification. Avena adds that eating foods rich in prebiotics (that’s garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, oats, apples, flaxseed, and seaweed) can help maintain a healthy gut environment which is crucial to health, while antioxidants (walnuts, pecans, salmon, berries, leafy greens, ginger, and herbs) fight against oxidative stress that can damage immune cells.
Fresh produce is always best, but if that isn’t available for you, a multivitamin can help deliver crucial micronutrients. (Avena likes clean brands Vitafusion and Frunutta.)
5. Spice It Up
“Many common household spices possess immunomodulatory properties, which help support your immune system,” Elder says. Largely, this follows the same reasoning as eating more whole foods and produce: Spices help to promote proper digestive function and are rich in antioxidants, helping to establish a strong and healthy immune system. Most also have their own beneficial features. Cumin and turmeric, for instance, have been shown to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, Elder says. He advises including healthy spices—like cumin, turmeric, coriander, ginger and fennel—in your daily diet.
6. Sip on Warm, Sugar-free Drinks
Staying hydrated is key to giving your organs all the necessary tools to fight off infections, like the flu and COVID-19, and keep you healthy. But come fall, trade cold beverages for warm ones: In addition to the latter being far more soothing (good for stress), Ayurvedic tradition—the indigenous healthcare system of India—follows that anything cold or sweet (especially both) will increase “kapha” dosha, which is the physiologic principle that promotes mucus promotion, Elder explains.
Besides being uncomfortable, excess mucus in the respiratory tract is a sign of imbalance—things are starting to get off track. “It’s a sign we may be heading for, and are in a state more vulnerable to, trouble,” Elder adds.
7. Get Strict About Sleep
Proper sleep is one of the top immune boosters noted by all three experts. “Sleep is crucial to keeping your immune system healthy and restoring balance to your body overall—especially when the weather gets cold and the relaxation of summer comes to an end,” Avena explains.
Aim for a consistent 7 to 8 hours a night, but if you wake up a lot in the night or are tired in the morning still, add another 30 to 60 minutes. “Quality counts and if you’re not getting a full, restful 7 to 8 hours, you’re not helping your immune health,” she adds.
Also, try to go to bed early (10 p.m. is ideal) and wake up early—this syncs with your natural circadian rhythm, taking away the physiological stress that late nights can lead to, Elder adds.
8. Wash Your Hands
The daily hygiene of our pandemic lives is actually the recommended hygiene to prevent all viruses, including the cold and flu. Hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing are incredibly important if you don’t want to get sick this season with either the flu or COVID-19, Kesh reminds.
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It used to be that those who audibly huffed and puffed their way through workouts were just annoying. Now—as they share equipment and steam up gyms with their sweat and heavy breath—they can be downright deadly, expelling tiny, potentially infectious particles that linger in the air for hours—making gyms an especially high-risk environment for COVID-19 exposure. But as temperatures start to drop, indoor gyms are beckoning. Four in 10 Americans say they’ll be returning to the gym at the same rate or more once it opens back up, according to a survey of over 2,000 people conducted by OnePoll on behalf of LIFEAID Beverage Co. (For what it’s worth, only 31 percent of gym members have actually returned, a survey of over 5,000 people by RunRepeat found.)
No matter where you exercise, the advice from public health officials, microbiologists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease experts is clear: Wear a damn mask. But the type of mask you can get away with may depend on your surroundings.
Three-layer surgical masks (those disposable, rectangular blue and white masks) and cotton masks were most effective at preventing the spread of droplets, according to a study published in September in the journal Science Advances—something that matters exponentially more when you’re exercising in an enclosed space (and even more when there are other people around).
The three-layer system is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). “The surface is typically made of some durable, breathable substance; the inner part is more water-resistant; and the third part that comes in contact with your face is a lighter cotton or linen,” explains Philip M. Tierno, Clinical Professor of Microbiology and Pathology at New York University and author of First, Wear a Face Mask.
A plain cotton mask should consist of at least four layers, according to WHO, whereas nylon blends and 100-percent polyester masks provide two to five times the efficiency when folded into two layers versus a single layer.
Under Armour SportMask Courtesy Image
Some sports performance companies are using the same fabrics to manufacture masks as they do in producing high-tech tops and bottoms; that may have an effect on the comfort of the mask. “A lot of masks use moisture-wicking materials and have a little bit of stretch to them, and that’s useful,” says Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and director of the Center for Global and Immigrant Health. “You want one that fits over the mouth and nose, and sits snug to the cheeks, while being flexible enough to bend as you move.”
You may see companies advertising masks with antimicrobial treatments, like the UA Sports Mask [$30; underarmour.com], with an antimicrobial treatment on the inside layer; or the Space Mask [$19; shopspacemask.com], which features an antibacterial filter in the middle and an antibacterial coating on the outer layer. “There may be some benefits to that, but there haven’t been any studies to back that up yet,” says Rimoin.
SMRTFT Sports Mask Courtesy Image
Other companies are manufacturing masks made with nanofibers, super-small synthetic fibers that block microscopic particles while allowing for better airflow. Coronavirus particles are approximately 0.125 microns—1/1000th of a millimeter—so you have to check to see what size particle a mask blocks, says Tierno (keep in mind that those particles are almost always bonded to something larger). The HALO Life Black Mesh Mask with HALO Nanofilter Technology [$34.95, halolife.io], for example, claims to block particles down to 0.1 microns; SMRTFT’s Sports Mask [$24.95, smrtfit.com] claims to block particles from 1.7 to 2.6 microns.
Adidas Face Cover Courtesy Image
Certain masks even come with filters or a pocket for a filter. “These little replaceable filters remove some particulate matter from the air, but they’re not necessarily going to be able to efficiently filter out viruses,” says Rimoin. With a workout face mask, “it’s less about the bells and whistles and more about making sure everything is covered with three layers of fabric,” she adds.
Outside, you could get away with wearing a one- or two-layer mask, like those from Adidas [$20, adidas.com] or Reebok [$20, reebok.com]. That said, “we know that breathing spews out these particles, which can remain suspended in the air,” says Tierno (he recommends maintaining at least 10 feet of distance from other outdoor exercisers). “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he says, when it comes to wearing a mask, and a minimum of three layers of fabric is still recommended outdoors.
Both Tierno and Rimoin caution against neck gaiters and bandanas. In the recent study published in Science Advances, the neck gaiter tested actually split larger droplets into smaller ones, which could allow them to spread more easily. (That may not be the case for all neck gaiters; the one tested was a single-layer of fleece made from a polyester and spandex blend.) “If you’re in an area where there’s no one else around, it’s probably fine, but they’re just not protecting you in the same way,” says Rimoin.
You should also avoid masks with valves and vents, which do make breathing out easier but defeat one of the main purposes of a mask: “The whole point of wearing a mask is to prevent transmission, and face masks with valves and vents do not prevent the spread of coronavirus,” says Rimoin. These kinds of masks allow clouds of particles to escape, and may put the wearer more at risk for exposure than if they wore a regular mask, research published in July in the journal Physics of Fluids found.
Whatever mask you choose, the most important thing is to A) wear it, inside and outside, and B) disinfect it! “Make sure that you’re washing or sanitizing a mask after every use,” says Rimoin. That may mean throwing it in the wash, leaving it out for a day or two (since the virus doesn’t live well on cloth surfaces, says Tierno), or even steaming it in an instant pot or rice cooker (yes, seriously—50 minutes above 100 degrees Celsius is a legit disinfection method, according to a study published in July in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters).
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There’s something about a global pandemic and lengthy at-home lockdown that seems to intensify the need for an after-work cocktail. In April, I considered a bottle of Cazadores blanco a pantry staple. Cracking ice into a rocks glass with a shot of tequila, soda water, and a squeeze of lime or two was the occasional, after-work break I needed from hitting refresh on the The New York Times website over and over again. But for a few weeks, the drink tasted like nothing. A cold collection of bubbles that was relaxing in its effervescence but wholly devoid of flavor. The smell was empty, too. I came down with COVID-19 in early March. I was lucky to have a mild case that put me out of commission for a few weeks but needed no hospitalization. The strangest symptom for me was the complete loss of smell, something called anosmia (and later, parosmia). At the time, smell loss was newly linked to COVID; now, it’s a more reliable predictor of infection than a PCR test. It happened very suddenly.
One morning, I could smell; that evening, I could not. I was sitting in bed, drinking ginger lemon tea and hitting refresh repeatedly on the news. A story popped up about anosmia in European novel coronavirus cases and, suddenly, I realized the tea I was drinking was nothing more than scentless, tasteless, warm water. My nose was clear, but my brain registered nothing. I leaned over to my boyfriend, who had been embracing his new work-from-home setup and had gotten more lax on showering. Nothing.
My inability to smell lingered long after I recovered from the other symptoms of the virus. The air inside my home had no comforting, discerning scents. No fragrances of morning coffee, fresh laundry, or anything at all. It made cooking challenging (how spicy could it be, really?), but cleaning out my cat’s litter box was a breeze. I immediately became aware of something that had never crossed my mind before: My ability to smell my surroundings was far from guaranteed. Initially, I worried daily that maybe my sense to smell was gone forever. I felt weirdly alone without it—separated from a perception of my environment I’d always taken for granted. Thankfully, by the end of April, I started to taste the tartness of lime in my tequila sodas again, soon followed by the subtle presence of agave.
Bit by bit, it came slowly back. By early May, I could smell most things around me, though not as intensely as before. Eating was enjoyable again. I wasn’t permanently changed, but my anosmia had gotten markedly better. But then, during the third week of May, I took one sip of a freshly made drink and forcibly spit it out onto the counter before I could make it to the sink. Tequila. Soda water. Lime. But what I tasted was a forgotten pile of vegetables left way too long in the fridge— like rotten zucchini had been muddled into the beverage. A putrid, ripe smell emanating from the glass caught my nose and I gagged, dumping the tequila down the sink.
Suddenly, many previously normal smells—in particular, smells I loved—were rancid. A geranium-scented hand soap in the kitchen smelled like rotten squash. Taking a shower was an exercise in sensory futility between fragrant shampoos and facewash. I had to hold my breath in order not to gag walking through the produce section of the grocery store. Most fruits—from strawberries to pineapple, oranges to bananas—were completely inedible as they tasted as terrible as they smelled. I had to stop eating cucumbers, tortilla chips, eggs, and olives—among many other things. One of the most crushing blows: when pizza tasted so awful I had to hold my breath to get down a single bite.
This sounds ridiculous, I know. The idea that a piece of pepperoni pizza could taste rotten when it’s most definitely not, sounds crazy. It sounds made up. And it sounds like something that shouldn’t be a big deal because it’s not life-threating. I was otherwise okay; everything around me just made me gag. It wasn’t until I discovered AbScent, a UK-based non-profit dedicated to promoting awareness of smell disorders and offering support for sufferers, that I even learned what was happening to me. Experts refer to the distortion of smell as parosmia. Chrissi Kelly, who grew up in Maine but has lived in England for the past three decades, founded AbScent after her own experience with anosmia that began in 2012. “It’s very, very difficult to get people to understand just how awful it is to lose your sense of smell,” she told me. “It’s a very isolating experience. [Friends and family] think to themselves, ‘Well, I can plug my nose and I can see what that’s like and I just don’t get it. What’s the big deal?’ And the fact of the matter is that people who lose limbs, people who lose their eyesight, people who lose their hearing recover their well-being eventually, within about two years. People who lose their sense of smell tend to deteriorate over time.”
How COVID-19 Can Affect Your Sense of Smell
There are two ways viral infections can cause smell loss. The first is through mucus blockage—i.e. a stuffed-up nose—that prevents odors from reaching receptors in the upper part of the nasal passage. The second, which is generally more rare, is when the olfactory neuroepithelium—the tissue that lines the nose and contains the nerves that communicate scent to the brain—is damaged by the virus. “Basically, if the nerves are damaged, that can lead to a more profound loss of sense of smell,” explains Dr. Evan R. Reiter, professor of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at Virginia Commonwealth University. While the research on smell loss and COVID-19 is of course, still evolving, studies have found that smell loss affects anywhere from 50-80 percent of individuals who contract the virus. That is not an insignificant amount. A recent study in Europe reinforced the distinctiveness of loss of smell and taste caused by SARS-CoV-2, sharing that while many people seem to recover quickly, there is reason to believe that problems with olfactory functioning will persist for some, long after they’ve otherwise recovered from the virus.
What Living With Anosmia and Parosmia Is Really Like
While far from a medical niche, smell and taste disorders exist outside of the general purview partly because of a lack of familiarity and partly because they just don’t seem as serious as issues with the other senses. This can make it confusing for those experiencing it, as well, gauging how to react or when to see a doctor. But, a lack of smell presents a set of real, life-affecting problems. Some scents alert us to possible danger: smoke from a fire, sulfur from a gas leak, even the smell of something burning on the stove. But even more, scent provides a way to connect with those around us. It provides comfort, familiarity and often nostalgia; it helps us to understand and interact with our environment in ways we really never consider until they disappear.
If anosmia is already an unfamiliar condition, then parosmia is even more so. With parosmia, the distortion usually happens with smells that are familiar. Generally pleasant scents are replaced with aggressively foul odors, like rotten vegetables or cigarette smoke. Parosmia renders food inedible and makes simple chores, like washing dishes, very challenging. How does it work? “In general, there are thousands of different receptors, all coded by different genes for olfactory neurons,” explains Dr. Reiter. “Most odors are relatively complex; they stimulate a whole bunch of different types of sensors. Your brain gets input from all these different receptors, then puts all that together to determine, this is a rose, this is my husband, this is dog poop. With parosmia, when there’s damage from any source, potentially all of the neurons and sensors are not affected the same, so instead of getting the signals from all of these different receptors, which the brain is used to, it’s maybe only getting signals from 25 or 50 percent—and when it puts that together, it changes the nature of what you’re smelling.”
What this means is that I dread brushing my teeth because the toothpaste tastes like it’s spoiled. A squeeze of lime in a cocktail—previously a nice way to wind down after work—is enough reason to pour my drink down the drain. For me, five months out from having COVID-19, parosmia affects every aspect of my daily life in a savagely smelly way.
How COVID-19 Could Help Experts Raise Awareness Around Olfactory Disorders
The nature of COVID-19 offers a unique opportunity to learn more about smell disorders in ways that can help people in the future. In early April, Dr. Reiter, who is also the medical director of the VCU Smell and Taste Clinic, launched a study with his team to understand more about the loss of these senses. “More often than not, when people experience changes in their sense of smell due to a virus, they will come in months or even years after their viral infection, simply because it hasn’t gotten better and they’re curious about that. You can also reason there are probably a lot of people who don’t seek medical attention or get tested.” This has made it challenging to research olfactory disorders, and in this way, COVID-19 presents opportunity. “Here we are with a highly publicized pandemic and the lay community is very aware that loss of sense of smell can be a hallmark symptom, so we’ve got all these people who are going through it together. We took the opportunity to try and study the natural history because that really hasn’t been possible [previously] with the way patients present so sporadically and so after-the-fact.”
This is hopeful. And in the meantime, the ranks of AbScent members continue to swell. In March, Kelly launched a COVID-specific parosmia support group on Facebook. Currently, there are more than 5,000 members who all describe similar experiences: coffee tastes terrible; gin seems to be the only liquor that isn’t wretched; rotten, smokey, and chemical smells and tastes abound. Everyone feels alienated because their experience is so unrelatable and sounds so ridiculous to their friends and family. Everyone finds solace in the experiences of other group members. Not one person has reported that the parosmia has ended and their sense of smell is completely back to normal. But it’s still early. The longest stretches of anosmia and parosmia date back to March; smell disorders can resolve—but it often takes months or years. And with every post shared in the group and every bit of information gathered by AbScent and shared with researchers (with permission, of course), the future of helping those suffering from smell disorders gets brighter. In a group that thrives on shared experience, this is definitely meaningful.
The best hope currently, as COVID-related anosmics and parosmics patiently wait for more scientific findings to emerge, is something called smell training, which is essentially physical therapy for the neural pathways between brain and nose. “The olfactory neurons are somewhat unique in the nervous system, in that they have the capacity to regenerate,” says Dr. Reiter. “What can happen in some cases is as the neurons regenerate, the wiring may get crossed, if you will, and people get a distortion.” Smell training is the repeated exercising of these neural pathways to help them recover properly, whether someone has no smell, or one that seems to be misfiring. It is the only research-backed technique that’s shown symptomatic improvement for smell disorders.
And it’s a process. “We have to think about this olfactory nerve as an injury rather than a disease that can be cured,” says Kelly. “If you got into a car accident and you looked at yourself in the mirror and saw that you were covered in scars, you wouldn’t say, when are my scars going to go away.”
There are success stories within the olfactory community. Chrissi, herself, is one. And her experiences resonate within the ranks of AbScent members suffering from anosmia and parosmia. I smell train every day. I take out a collection of small glass jars that contain different essential oils in various scent categories: orange and lemon for fruit, rose for floral, eucalyptus for resin, and clove for spice. For about 10 seconds each, I smell them individually. I focus on how they smell, how they’re supposed to smell, and I imagine being able to eat anything I want in the future, with no fear of an unexpected, rotten flavor. A few days ago, as I was brushing my teeth before bed, the toothpaste tasted utterly, completely normal. It’s been five months since I originally lost my sense of smell, and every small win makes me more hopeful.
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To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we wear face masks to protect those around us from being exposed to our potentially infected respiratory droplets. But if you’ve been rocking a neck gaiter or bandana for style or ease, you’re actually not offering much protection at all, according to new research.
Scientists at Duke compared 14 different types of face coverings—including 2- and 3-ply fabric and surgical masks, various N95s, a neck gaiter, and a traditional bandana. They measured how many droplets came through the fabric when the wearer spoke.
Their findings, published in Science Advances: While some masks work quite well, bandanas offer almost no protection against the transmission of respiratory droplets. And the neck gaiter they tested actually let through more droplets compared to not wearing a mask at all.
Study on efficacy of 14 different face masks against COVID-19 Josh Erikson
Why Gaiters and Bandanas Don’t Work Well
The Duke team didn’t study why exactly some masks worked better than others. But the type of fabric and how tightly the mask fits to your face are both key components in how effective a face covering will be, says lead study author Martin Fischer, Ph.D., associate research professor of chemistry at Duke.
Bandanas leave a huge gap under your mouth for particles to travel out of as you speak or breathe.
And the material and weave of a neck gaiter—at least the one Fischer’s team used, which was a single layer of polyester/spandex—disperses larger droplets into several smaller ones, which actually increases the droplet count overall.
In addition to creating more droplets for someone to breathe in, smaller droplets stay suspended in the air for longer than big ones, thanks to gravity. That adds even more exposure risk to those around you if you’re covering your mouth with a gaiter as you pass someone on a narrow trail or in a crowded subway car.
N95 face masks sockagphoto / Shutterstock
So Which Face Masks Actually Worked?
As far as the most effective masks, Fischer’s team found a fitted N95 to be best, most likely because it has both a tight seal and thick material.
However, the valved version of an N95 mask performed very poorly. That’s not surprising considering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned last week that masks with exhalation valves or vents (i.e., the face coverings you might have from construction work) do not prevent the wearer from transmitting COVID-19 to others. After all, you’re just letting all your air directly out into the world.
Second best overall was a 3-layer surgical mask, followed by a 3-layer cotton/poly blend (like the kind a family member might have sewn for you). The main takeaway here is the more layers the better—three helped significantly lower the number of respiratory droplets that were able to travel through, compared to 2-ply or single ply fabric masks.
The Bottom Line
Fitted N95 masks work best—but these should be reserved for healthcare workers, Fischer points out. Cotton masks, meanwhile, block about 80 percent of the droplets, which is “perfectly fine” for everyday use, he adds. Opt for a three-layered variety if you can. (TBD on if ties are better than elastic, Fischer says.)
Perhaps surprisingly, if a gaiter is the only face covering available, you should still use it. Fischer is quick to point out they only studied one type. Other brands and materials might perform better. But at the very least, fold your gaiter in half or three times so you have more than one layer in front of your mouth to up the protection ability, he suggests.
Overall, the tighter a mask fits to your face and the more layers of fabric between your mouth and the outside world, the better protection it will offer. (A good rule of thumb: If you can see light through the fabric, it isn’t going to offer much protection, Fischer says.)
Yes, those are two things that also make a mask harder to breathe out of when you’re working out or wearing it all day. But until we understand more about who is a carrier of COVID-19, the goal of wearing a mask should be to protect others from your own respiratory droplets. And any mask is better than no mask.
Buff Filter Mask and Asics Unisex Runners Face Cover Courtesy Images
Our Picks (Not Based on the Study)
If you’re a hardcore fitness fanatic who sweats regularly, try to time your outdoor workouts to off-peak hours in less-congested areas (i.e. avoid parks). If you’re training in extremely hot and humid conditions, try the new Buff Filter Mask ($30). It comes with five replacement filters that block 98 percent of airborne particulates (they should be replaced after 24 hours), and the adjustable back-of-head elastic bands ensure a snug fit. Or, opt for Asics’ Runners Face Cover ($40). It mitigates the spread of droplets by covering your nasal passage without inhibiting breathability within the mask. Specifically placed air holes let air in but keep your saliva from escaping out. These aren’t as foolproof as an N95, but again, those should be reserved for healthcare workers. By being more strategic about where and when you train, on top of wearing one of these masks, you’ll ultimately lower your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.
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