Getting outside and moving are important for your physical and mental health, but how can you do it safely?

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
April 14, 2020
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Photo: Getty Images/Patrik Giardino

With COVID-19 forcing most of us to stay home, it can be hard to know what is safe, what is not and where the line is. But moving our bodies and connecting with nature feels more important (physically and mentally) than ever before, thanks to stress-reduction benefits. But is it safe to spend time outdoors during a pandemic? What are the risks and the precautions we should be taking for ourselves and our families?

To get more information, we talked to a few experts about their thoughts on people going outside during the coronavirus outbreak. Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., is an epidemiologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham. Amira Roess, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University. Both women shed some light on the what it means to safely get outdoors during this time.

Is It Safe to Go Outside?

"Absolutely, and it's more important now than ever," said Judd, "Exercise helps improve your state of mind. Especially during times like these, it can help ease stress and anxiety." Exercise not only boosts your physical health, but also is important to maintaining your mental health and managing stress. A recent study in Health Psychology found that exercising was able to improve measures of anger, depression, anxiety and hostility in just three months. Roess added, "We know that people who exercise regularly tend to have a lower risk of hypertension and other chronic conditions—conditions that are associated with worse COVID-19 outcomes."

So, exercise and spending time in nature is important. But how can we pursue it in a safe way? While we are still learning more about this new coronavirus, it's believed to be spread through person-to-person contact via contaminated respiratory droplets.

"This is the reason we are advised to stay at least 6 feet apart from other people, as that is farther than most viruses in fluid can travel," said Judd, "[For this reason], the outdoor air is not a risk factor. But it is important to be careful with communal equipment, like handrails or park structures, because the virus can live on surfaces." If you must use handrails or another surface that other people are touching, avoid touching your face and wash your hands for 20 seconds as soon as you are able.

However, "There are more benefits than risks to exercising and spending time outdoors during this pandemic," stated Roess, "Just be sure that you practice social distancing when you are out. When you return home, wash your hands and change your clothes." (Learn how long COVID-19 can live on clothes.)

Is It Necessary to Wear a Mask?

Should you wear a mask when exercising, like running or cycling, outdoors? Many experts interviewed by The New York Times say that the risk of being infected outdoors is low, especially if you are keeping at least 6 feet apart. A recent report from Belgium and the Netherlands looked specifically at activities like running and cycling, where there may be an additional aerodynamic component to social distancing, as opposed to people standing still. They made additional recommendations that people should stagger themselves to avoid being directly behind or in front of another runner or cyclist, though the methods of their simulation have generated some controversy.

The CDC recommends "wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission."

Recent studies that show masks might reduce the risk of disease transmission, especially from people who are COVID-19 carriers but may not have symptoms.

Some cities have recommended wearing a mask at all times, so check with your local public health department for guidelines in your area.

Tips to Do It Safely

Keeping moving is important, for your body and your mind. However, options to get outside may feel limited, depending on where you live. Several national and state parks are closing their doors during this time to encourage people to stay home and reduce crowding. Additionally, dog parks and playgrounds in New York City are temporarily closed to limit human (and animal) interaction. To help you navigate this tricky topic, we have pulled together a few important tips on how you can enjoy the outdoors and stay safe doing it.

Avoid Dangerous Activities

Many hospitals across the country are overwhelmed by the caseload that this coronavirus has created. For your safety and the safety of health care workers, it's worth skipping high-risk activities that are more likely to cause injury and put you in the hospital. Things like skateboarding, mountain biking, outdoor rock climbing and skiing are all fun sports and hobbies, but they are higher-risk than activities like walking, running or yoga. Now is a natural time to take a pause on more extreme sports to reduce your risk of an injury that could send you into an already-strained hospital. Plus, staying out of the hospital also lowers your risk of encountering those seeking treatment for COVID-19.

Disinfect Your Gear

Even if you are not coming in contact with others or touching anything outdoors, wash your hands for 20 seconds before and after your workout. This will help reduce the risk that you are carrying anything potentially harmful into your home. Additionally, avoid touching your face during exercise, especially if you are touching communal structures like handrails. After exercising or spending time outside, change your clothes and disinfect any gear you used, such bike helmets, gloves, walking sticks or glasses. This safeguard can help you and your family stay healthy, while also keeping your gear in good condition for its next use.

Keep Your Distance

Keep at least 6 feet of space between you and the nearest person or animal. This applies to outdoor activities and exercise as well as to public spaces in general. Sometimes, it can be easier to do, like stepping off of the sidewalk into a front yard or moving aside on a hiking trail to let others pass. But it is important all of the time, and in more compact areas like parking lots especially.

To help you keep adequate space from others, try to avoid high-traffic times when people may be outside in public spaces. If your neighborhood or local bike path is the busiest around lunchtime, try to take a walk in the morning or after work hours instead. Staying away from crowds will make it easier to keep your distance and lowers your risk of coming in close contact with others.

Don't Travel

With more free time and time at home, it can be tempting to take a road trip or weekend to your favorite outdoors destination. In short: don't. It is crucial for the effectiveness of the nationwide stay-at-home orders and quarantine recommendations that we stay within our immediate communities. That means limiting outdoor time to parks, trails and roads that are nearest to your home, even if they are not the most scenic in the area or the places you would typically frequent.

If You're Sick, Stay Home

This one should go without saying, but is worth the important reminder. "If you have any symptoms, do not hesitate to try to get tested or contact your doctor, and definitely do not go out during that time," said Judd. Even if your symptoms are mild or you have not formally been tested, stay home and avoid others if you are feeling sick. Call your doctor before going to any offices in person to establish the best next steps for you.

Bottom Line

Everyone wants to continue to go outside and exercise, but we all need to make sure we're doing it safely. Judd and her husband take daily runs and walks, and take turns teaching a "physical education" class for their son. Roess has been taking walks with hand weights, and aims for quiet hours when she is able to avoid lots of people. Whether it is doing yoga in your backyard, a hike with the family or simply gardening, use these tips and enjoy the outdoors during these trying times.

Beyond exercise, it is highly important that we continue to look out for one another while keeping our distance. "Social isolation is a serious consequence of this pandemic. As much as possible have phone calls or video chats with your friends and family," encouraged Roess, "Check up on your neighbors, especially those who are elderly or disabled. Those kinds of connections are very important [right now]."

The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change quickly; it's possible that information or data has changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC, WHO and their local public health department as resources.