How COVID-19 Could Impact Our Outdoor Habits

Editor’s note: Please consult the CDC or your state health department for information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When spending time outdoors, please recreate responsibly.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 20-year-old Julia Madajczak, a Polish au pair working with a family in Virginia, liked spending time with friends outdoors. They’d hang out in the evenings, playing guitars and singing, but that’s about where it ended. Now, Madajczak estimates she is outdoors at least three hours every day—this time walking, running or getting outside with the children she watches. Even as public health restrictions ease, she aims to maintain these new routines.

With old patterns disrupted and gyms and fitness studios still temporarily closed in parts of the country, you, too, may be turning to the outdoors as a respite and mood booster. The question is: Will all the extra people hitting the sidewalks and trails continue these outdoor habits, even as states open back up (or, in some cases, pause or revert reopening plans)?

Past research about forming habits could indicate yes, says Sandy Parsons, Ph.D., assistant teaching professor in the department of psychological sciences at Rice University. “It generally takes people about 66 days to form a habit,” she says. A few states, like Washington and Virginia, had initial stay-at-home orders that surpassed the 66-day mark. Many others were close to that point, with phased reopenings following the lifting of orders.

Haley Steinhauser, a doctoral candidate in behavior analysis at Western New England University, agrees. If public health restrictions had only lasted a few weeks, Steinhauser expects we would have seen smaller odds of these practices continuing. “But after this much time has passed and because it may last much longer in some places, the odds are better,” she says.

A 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, revealed that after 12 weeks, most participants who had chosen a daily eating, drinking or activity behavior turned it into a habit. Given the fact that not everyone can or wants to go their gyms right now, “that timeline may even be accelerated,” Parsons says.

But that’s just one of several predictors that suggest Americans may become a good deal more outdoorsy amid the pandemic.

Like Madajczak, Steve Worthy, a 50-year-old entrepreneur from Maryland, has changed his exercise habits during the pandemic. “Before my gym closed down, I would maybe try to run once or twice a month, but I hated it,” he says. “Without the gym, I knew I needed a tool to get out, so I’ve been working on a couch-to-5K program. I just ran for 20 minutes straight, with no walking, for the very first time. A big breakthrough for me.”

Even better, says Worthy, is the fact that he’s beginning to enjoy running. “It’s something I now look forward to,” he says. “I’m definitely getting mental benefits from the experience, and running has also given me an appreciation for being outdoors.”

Madajczak, too, feels the emotional gains from her newfound time outside. “The feeling of sunshine and wind on my cheeks, the sound of birds—it helps me forget for one moment how much everything has changed,” she says.

Researchers refer to this experience as savoring, and Parsons says the outdoors is an ideal setting. “You can focus on the beauty of your environment, something you can’t necessarily cultivate inside a gym. You can actually prolong that feeling of wellness beyond the moment,” she says.

A 30-minute run in the sunshine, then, might deliver you several hours of feel-good benefits. Researchers call this up-regulating positive feelings. For Madajczak, that holds true. “This is an amazing part of my life now that helps me feel more connected with my mind and body,” she says. “I feel healthier and realize how important that is; it’s one of the best feelings you can have.”

The timing of the pandemic—beginning as it did in the spring—has also helped encourage people to get outdoors. Steinhauser pointed out that might not have been the case had it begun in winter, when people may be less likely to go outside due to colder temps. Now that it’s summer, new outdoors habits have had a chance to take hold.

“Being outside helps me clear my mind and get rid of bad thoughts after tough days. That was something I didn’t realize was possible before quarantine. Now I have a reset button in my life.” –Julia Madajczak

In addition, says Parsons, many people have now conditioned themselves to believe that being outside is good and in some cases, better, than indoors. “All of the mechanisms of the pandemic have forced us outside,” she says. “In order to cope, we’ve had to develop a sense for what’s OK and what’s not.”

She adds: “Now there is no good reason for everyone’s brains to undo the psychological work and backtrack, so remaining active outdoors feels right and logical.”

Another potential added layer that may reinforce outdoor habits is tied to personal finances. “The economy is taking a huge hit and many people are tightening their belts,” Parsons says. “If they invested in any new equipment to support outdoor activity, they don’t want to let that go to waste.”

Steinhauser says this is especially true if the investor is reaping benefits from the expenditure. “If you’ve bought a new bike and it has made riding much easier and more enjoyable for you, then you are more likely to stick with it,” she explains. “The opposite also holds true: If you’re not getting something out of the money you spent, you’re more likely to abandon it.”

Feeding into enjoying new equipment or activities is the fact that humans tend to enjoy building on or mastering skills. “People like multiple layers of complexity,” Parsons says. “Once they’ve mastered a skill, they want to move on to the next level.”

If you’ve become a regular walker during the pandemic, you might now be seeking out longer or more challenging routes. Perhaps you’ve improved your running consistency. The next step might be heading off road to run trails. “Outdoors, there are infinite places to visit and obstacles to overcome,” Parsons says.

Despite all the additional time spent outdoors of late, there’s certainly a portion of the population that is looking forward to getting back into the gym or studio. Some gyms have reopened with requirements on distancing, mask wearing and smaller class sizes. Gym goers may be surprised, however, to find they are unconsciously averse to the idea. “We’ve developed a high level of disgust for this disease,” Parsons says. “Turning that off will be hard.”

Picturing yourself sweating indoors, side by side with others might not sound very appealing. “Even the terminology public health officials have used with this disease—that you can shed a virus—is off-putting, and that’s by design,” Parsons says. “It’s designed to make us want to stay separate.”

Adds Steinhauser: “During this period of time, people have learned a different way to exercise. The degree to which they feel safe and the fear they feel for indoor, contained spaces will take some time to diminish.”

Overcoming that psychological barrier can be a challenge, and there are some people who may never get there, Parsons says. This group of people, and those who have embraced the added time outdoors, are forming their own “separate but together” sense of community. “There’s something moving about seeing someone else exercising outdoors, even from a distance,” she adds. “We’re in this together and some part of that will carry into the future.”

Both Madajczak and Worthy expect they’ll stick with their new habits. Worthy intends to return to his gym in time, but for now, he’s continuing to push his running miles. “Give me a year of going after it and I think I’ll be able to get to some real mileage with running,” Worthy says. “It boggles my mind that I’ve come to enjoy it.”

For Madajczak, the outdoors is a new place of peace. “Being outside helps me clear my mind and get rid of bad thoughts after tough days,” she says. “That was something I didn’t realize was possible before quarantine. Now I have a reset button in my life.”

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