How to Spend Time Outside While Social Distancing 

Seven tips for exercising and going outdoors close to home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Editor’s note: After a great deal of careful consideration, we are temporarily closing our retail stores nationwide. Learn more about that decision. Please consult the CDC or your state health department for advice related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including information on symptoms, testing and how to protect yourself and others during social distancing. Follow local guidelines regarding travel, and check access to local, state and national parks before you visit. Remember that outdoor recreation has inherent risks; don’t attempt activities beyond your experience and skill level. Your actions may present risk not only to you, but to your local community during these challenging times.

With at least 196 million U.S. residents under orders to stay home to help stem the spread of coronavirus, some recreationists are asking if it’s OK to get outside for activities such as walking, running or biking. In many cases, public health officials and other experts say the answer is yesas long as you’re not sick, adhere to local orders, and practice social distancing and common sense.  

Mandatory stay-at-home orders often allow exceptions for engaging in activities outdoors, generally close to home, like walking your dog, riding a bike or going on a run (if you stay at least 6 feet away from others). New York state guidelines, for example, allow for outdoor recreation, though “individuals should … avoid activities where they come in close contact with other people.”  

California officials say residents “can walk, run, hike and bike in their local neighborhoods as long as they continue to practice social distancing of 6 feet.” (But they specifically tell people to avoid crowded trails and parking lots.)   

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 is thought to spread easily and mainly person to person:  

  • between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet);   
  • through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. 

“I am encouraging people to get outside in this time of social distancing, but being smart about it,” says Dr. Sean O’Leary, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases and a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Children’s Hospital Colorado, adding that “being outdoors, whether it’s simply walking or exercising, has shown over the years to improve mental health.”

Whatever you do outside, practice social distancing, which means keep at least 6 feet away from others to avoid contracting or spreading the virus, the CDC says.

“We give a 6-foot distance based on the distance the particles travel after a sick person coughs or sneezes in calm conditions,” says Brian Labus, assistant professor in the University of Las Vegas School of Public Health, who served as senior epidemiologist for the Southern Nevada Health District for 15 years. “If you are running a few feet behind someone on a windy day and they turn their head and sneeze, that sneeze could land on you. You just have to be smart about it and take the environment into account.” 

Here are seven other tips to get outside while social distancing:

Check specific guidelines in your community 

Know the rules for where you live. Guidelines, along with park and trail closures, are changing rapidly. Information provided here was accurate at the time of publication but may have since changed, so check with your local or state public health agency and public land managers to get the latest information.  

California, New York, Oregon, Illinois, New Jersey, Washington and other states that have issued mandatory orders for residents to stay at home have made certain exceptions for engaging in outdoor activities such as walking, running or biking as long as people maintain social distancing.   

Florida, Oregon and other communities such as Los Angeles County have shuttered parks, trails or other recreation areas to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the crowds seen in recent days that have made social distancing difficult. Federal officials have closed Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains and other national parks. 

Stay local, avoid crowded places

While some states or communities have officially closed parks, trails and campgrounds and discouraged people from traveling to popular recreation spots, you may still be able to get a dose of nature close to home. Consider exploring open spaces in your community to get your outdoor fix. Traveling to recreational spots often means stopping for gas, groceries or bathroom breaks along the way, potentially putting you and others in those communities at risk.

The American Alpine Club asks climbers to limit recreation-based travel beyond their community. “While outdoor time is necessary for each of us during this turbulent period, we need to stay local and limit our interaction with vulnerable communities,” the club said on its website.  

Avoid popular parks that typically attract a lot of peopleor that you know don’t have enough open space to allow for proper social distancing. Crowded parking lots, beach access points or trailheads make it much harder to stay 6 feet from others.

Go solo (or only with your household)  

“Outdoor recreation is a solitary recreational exercise,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday in announcing his state’s restrictions. “It’s running. It’s hiking. It’s not playing basketball with five other people. That’s not what it is. It’s not laying in a park with 10 other people and sharing a beer. That’s not what this is.”  

Although adhering to the CDC’s social distancing guidelines means group hikes or playing team sports are out, in many cases, you may still have the freedom to explore your local wild trails alone or take a solo bike ride around your neighborhood.

“If you have no medical reason not to exercise and are not sick including with mild (upper respiratory infection) symptoms, then yes you should definitely exercise,” says Dr. Mark Harrast, a sports medicine physician and medical director of the Sports Medicine Center at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium.  

Consider running with a family member if you want, but don’t meet up with a regular running buddy for a run if you’re not living and interacting regularly with that person already, says Harrast, who occasionally runs with his kids in a jogging stroller. 

Families can consider walking together in places where they can keep a 6 foot distance from others, says Dr. Dori Rosenberg, affiliate associate professor of the University of Washington Department of Health Services, School of Public Health. But she adds this reminder: There are a lot of physical activities people can do inside, including dance parties or setting up indoor physical activity or exercise circuits

Practice excellent hygiene  

Before, during and after spending time outdoors, follow CDC guidelines to protect yourself from COVID-19, including washing your hands often and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth. 

“Follow general precautions that you would do anyplace that you aren’t familiar with,” says Harrast. He offered these other tips: 

  • Avoid touching surfaces and touching your face while out. “Do not touch park benches, pull-up bars, park bathroom sinks and buttons for crosswalks with your hands (or wear gloves and wash your hands).” 
  • Carry hand sanitizer with you in case you accidentally do touch something that hasn’t been disinfected. 
  • Avoid drinking from public water fountains, given other people’s noses and mouths get close to them. 
  • Wash your hands when you get home. 

Exercise at less popular times  

“Go at times when others are not there. Avoid times when lots of people are out,” Dr. O’Leary says. Aim for times of the day when roads or paths are empty, such as early morning or later at night. 

If the spot where you choose to recreate is too crowded when you arrive, be prepared to leave. “Come back later or try someplace new rather than put each other at risk,” the Washington Trails Association says on its website. “There’s room for all of us.” 

The National Recreation and Park Association recommends: “Warn other trail users of your presence and as you pass to allow proper distance and step off trails to allow others to pass, keeping minimum recommended distances at all times. Signal your presence with your voice, bell or horn.” 

A woman jogs solo by a body of water

Don’t linger  

While getting exercise outside is often considered an essential activity under these orders, the idea is to stay at home as much as possiblenot to plan a day outing.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sunday acknowledged the need to get outside and get exercise, but he urged people to keep it short.  

“It’s absolutely normal and human to want to get outside, get a little bit of exercise. But I remind you the pause is all about social distancing. It’s all about protecting ourselves and our families and each other,” de Blasio said during a press briefing Sunday. “When we say you can go out for some exercise, we’re not saying you can linger. We’re not saying you can make a day of it. We’re saying go out, get a minimum amount of exercise, get what you need and go back indoors.” 

Take a walk 

Getting outside can be as simple as taking a stroll alone or with your family around your neighborhood. “At this time, walking is a wonderful exercise that people can do safely outside as long as you can stay 6 feet from others,” says Dr. Rosenberg.  

“Physical activity has innumerable health benefits including when performed outdoors,” she says. “It improves mood, reduces anxiety, improves cardiovascular health and supports functional health. You also can have a chance to smile and wave at your neighbors from a safe distance.”  

On her walk the other day, she ran into several people she knew and, while standing far away, was able to catch up a bit and see how they were doing. “This was a great boost to my mood and allowed me to have the feeling of social connection at a time when it is difficult to do so.”

For more news and information regarding COVID-19, check out our coverage here.

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