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Your Questions About Exercising Outside While Social Distancing, Answered

Wellness Outdoor National Parks
by Tim Wenger Mar 20, 2020

If ever there were a time to be a couch potato without feeling guilty or unproductive, it’s now. But staying home doing nothing gets old pretty quick for those used to being active outdoors, particularly when spring has sprung and the sun is shining over your favorite local trail. But is it safe to walk, hike, bike, or go for a run during a global pandemic?

While specific situations vary, the general answer is a cautious “yes.” Simply stepping outside into the fresh air is not going to expose you or anyone else to COVID-19. That said, the two words that will inevitably come to define this period in popular culture — “social distancing” — should remain at the core of every step you take. Here we answer your questions on bicycling, walking, hiking, and running, during the age of coronavirus.

Can I go for a bike ride?

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Hear us loud and clear on this one: Get on your bikes and ride. Bicycling is the best form of transportation for those who do need to move around their community while practicing social distancing. Not only will you get from point A to point B much faster than if you walked, but you’ll also avoid the temporary risks posed by public transit and rideshares. This is an especially effective way for those in urban cores to take care of general errands such as grocery shopping or a prescription pickup. UK-based Bicycle Association, a cycling advocacy group, said in a statement, “in the current extraordinary circumstances, bicycles and cycling are already playing a key role in maintaining local transport resilience in the UK, also enabling many in the UK to maintain fitness and wellbeing without risking the health of others.”

Mountain bikers can also safely use this time to explore local trails while taking necessary precautions against injury and close contact with others. It’s important to note, however, that this is not the time to take that big spring bike trip. In Moab, Utah, the country’s top mountain-biking road trip destination, the local hospital is urging visitors to stay away — going so far as to write a letter to Utah Governor Gary Herbert asking for the shuddering of non-essential businesses in an effort to temporarily deter tourism. “We’re already concerned with how we’ll meet the needs of our own community in an epidemic,” the letter states. “As a 17-bed critical access hospital, we have no ICU and minimal capability to care for critical respiratory patients.”

Answer: Keep your pedaling close to home (and avoid those six-person tandem rides) and you’re good to go.

Can I walk through local parks or public paths?

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Few activities are as beneficial to the mind as a good walk, especially during particularly stressful times. Heed this advice and get out for a stroll around your neighborhood, through the local park, or along a scenic riverfront path. If you’re feeling nervous about your personal situation or the greater world at large, a good walk may actually be just what you need. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, studies have shown that a 10-minute walk can have the same stress-reducing effect as a 45-minute workout, with the aerobic exertion actually serving to stabilize the mood and reduce mental tension. If the park up the street is full of people, opt instead for a clear sidewalk or trail.

Should you need an excuse or a dose of motivation, walking the dog is among the activities permitted even in places with the strictest isolation bans. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, health officer Dr. Grant Colfax told reporters at a news briefing, “You will still be able to walk your dog or go on a hike alone, or with someone you live with, or even with another person as long as you keep six feet between you.”

That said, avoid parks that tend to get crowded on a normal day. This is especially true in major cities. Now is not the time to picnic in Prospect Park, New Yorkers.

Answer: Go for a long, solo walk on an uncrowded path. It’ll do you good and provide ample time to think as, of course, you won’t be walking in groups or chatting up strangers you pass along the way.

How about running?

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This certainly isn’t the time to join the local running club. But as with walking or riding a bike, a solo run might be just what you need right now. Most joggers are familiar with the term “runner’s high,” referring to the endorphins released during a prolonged period of aerobic exercise. You can use this to your ultimate advantage after several days of isolation because those same endorphins are known to calm the mind and ease stress. As we mentioned above, be careful to maintain six feet between you and others as you pass them. If you live in a city and typically run a route through town, avoid doing so if it’s busy. Now’s the perfect time to mix up your routine.

Answer: Just like walking, it is safe to run as long as you keep to yourself.

Is it safe to hike or visit a national park?

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Trailheads around the country are currently seeing swarms of people looking to escape the confines of their homes. Not only are hikers on crowded trails violating the sacred mantra of social distancing, but they’re also potentially creating a problem for the surrounding small towns that don’t have the medical infrastructure to handle a large crisis. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with going on a hike during the pandemic, it’s important to be mindful of potential risks. Avoid busy trailheads in favor of less-crowded routes or earlier departure times. If you get to the trailhead and the parking lot is packed, keep driving to the next one.

As we recently discussed in detail, it is not appropriate to head out of town to destination parks during the pandemic. While the National Park System is (counterproductively, in our opinion) waiving entrance fees to promote getting into nature, anyone who’s been to the Grand Canyon knows that crowds at these popular parks can resemble Disneyland even on an off-peak day. Furthermore, lodging and dining options in many outdoors-focused resort communities around the country have been temporarily shut down as a means to prevent viral spread there. Let these communities take care of themselves, while yours does the same.

Answer: Hike local trails and peaks, but now isn’t the time to visit trails or chase summits not accessible from your community. And it’s certainly not the time for a road trip to Yosemite.

Can this all change?

Answer: Yes. As the situation develops, certain places are enforcing stricter lockdowns, curfews, and “shelter-in-place” directives. Look to your local, state, and even federal governments to see what the official policies are, and recognize that they could change day-to-day. Do your part to keep the peace by following all mandated restrictions — this too shall pass, and you can always exercise indoors.

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