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What Exercise Can I Do Outside? And Should I?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on outdoor activities have increased as public health officials try to limit the spread of the virus. What can you and should you do outside?

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A few caveats: The guidelines and official restrictions vary from place to place, so you should always check your local rules and follow public health recommendations where you live. In most of the U.S., residents are under some variation of ‘shelter at home’ orders, which allow them to leave the house for essential activities.

For most of these orders essential activities include exercise outside or walking the dog, for example. However, it’s important to note “essential” basic exercise to maintain your mental and physical health does not necessarily mean big training hours. Some athletes have come under criticism for putting in long rides or epic runs.

The other important caveat: What scientists know about the virus and how it spreads is constantly (and rapidly) evolving. For example, a study this week modeled the potential for droplets to stay in the air longer when people are breathing heavily running or biking—however, that study did not model real life scenarios or the specifics of how the coronavirus spreads.

Can I Run Outside?

“Yes, running outside is fine,” said Shannon Bell, an exercise physiologist in Australia.

Except in places where there is a strict quarantine, most areas are allowing people to run outside either solo or with the members of their household. In the open air, the virus more freely disperses and your risk of catching it are minimal.

However, there are some precautions you should take when running outside. Most importantly, “running should be performed solo,” said Levine, or with the other people you are already sheltering with in your household. No group runs or runs with friends.

“Running outside is fine, but for all exercise use the mnemonic ‘double your distance’ to make sure that athletes realize that six feet of social distancing is not enough when ventilation is increasing during exercise,” said Dr. Ben Levine, a professor of Medicine and Cardiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Levine also directs the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. “A good analogy would be passing someone smoking a cigarette. If you can smell the smoke, then you are probably too close.”

The challenge for many people has been the influx of crowds on trails and paths where they typically run. Our sister site, PodiumRunner, has outlined some ethical questions to consider when trail running during this pandemic. This is also what’s led some counties and jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles, to close public trails or popular bike paths, in order to limit the number of people in one place. A rule of thumb in many locations has become: don’t drive to a trailhead, both to limit your potential to spread the illness and also to limit crowds in impacted locations. For example, France limited exercising to within one kilometer of your house. (Of course, many people don’t live right next door to empty open space, making these issues extra challenging.)

Can I Bike Outside?

This is a little more complicated, in that you’re allowed to bike solo outside in many places—again, check your local rules and restrictions—but the debate among cyclists right now is if you should.

“This is more of a personal decision, based on the area you live in. Clearly there are inherent risks with cycling, and should you live in an area with an already overwhelmed hospital system, the question should be asked, ‘Is it worth it?’” said Bell. His point is if you get hit by a car or you crash, and you need to go to an emergency room, then you could be putting stress on an overstressed hospital system. (Not to mention a hospital is a good place to catch the virus, if you’re in a hot spot.) “If you have an alternative, I’d use it until things settle down,” he said—as in: ride the trainer when and if you can.

If you do choose to ride outside, however, be smart. No riding in groups. And try to minimize your risk, as well as bring everything you might need with you so you don’t have to stop at gas stations or stores far from home.

Should I Wear A Mask When Exercising?

Again, these guidelines can change or evolve, but the CDC currently recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” both to prevent you from getting the illness and also to prevent asymptotic carriers from spreading it to others.

This does not mean you should wear a hospital-quality mask—save those for the doctors. It simply means a barrier, perhaps a neck gaiter or scarf or homemade mask, when you’re in close contact with other people.

Our other sister site, VeloNews, discussed the questions around if this means you should wear a mask while biking or running. First and foremost: follow social distancing guidelines when exercising. “When it comes to masks, keep one handy, and wear it when you’re in close proximity to others.”

How About Swimming?

For many triathletes, swimming simply isn’t a possibility right now, with most gyms and public pools closed. However, if you do have a pool available, the CDC currently says the coronavirus isn’t known to spread through water. The challenge for many of us is maintaining good hygiene in the facilities around the pool—the locker rooms and with people close to you in a lane.

Additionally, many public beaches and parks have closed. But if you do have open water available, then that should be fine, said Bell. There has been some concern raised recently about the potential for the virus to live in sewage that’s dumped in the ocean—but there is no evidence yet that coronavirus is known to be waterborne.

Should I Even Be Training Right Now Anyway?

“Probably the critical issue is not to train when you are sick,” said Levine. Partially that’s for all the normal reasons you shouldn’t train when sick. But partially the issue in this current pandemic is the potential to pass on COVID-19 without knowing it. If you have a cough or fever, current health recommendations are to simply stay home and not potentially spread any illness.

The other issue is not to overstress your immune system with extremely intense training. While the research on long-term impacts to your immune system from training is mixed, there is evidence you can experience a decrease in immune health immediately following intense or race-level efforts. That doesn’t necessarily make you more susceptible to the coronavirus, but it is something to consider.

“I think the biggest take away from the current situation is to minimize your risk of exposure. If you can continue to train outdoors, away from people in a hygienic fashion, then all is great,” said Bell, who himself has continued to exercise. “Having said that, there is a risk vs. reward situation to think about. Do you need to train outdoors, just because you always have? Is there a viable alternative which may reduce your exposure?”

This, he said, could be a good time to rethink your schedule and focus on your weaknesses. For healthy triathletes already training, you should be able to continue training. Just think before you swim, bike, or run. And stay up-to-date on the guidelines and restrictions in your area.