When the gyms closed, we had to get creative with our at-home workouts and venture outside to walk, run and bike. Exercising outdoors provides a powerful double whammy — you get the benefits of activity and the burst of fresh air, sunshine and vitamin D that can elevate your mood and immune system.
But coronavirus isn’t confined to only indoor spaces, experts warn. There isn’t yet evidence of the risk of transmission in outdoor settings, but it’s still good practice to try to remain safe and limit exposure, says Russell Pate, PhD, an exercise science professor at the University of South Carolina.
For example, he advises against using playground equipment or working out in crowded areas, since both present some risk of virus transmission. “The main advice is to err on the side of caution,” he says.
Since rules and guidelines are changing regularly, make sure to check local regulations before going out.
Much like you’ve been advised to do in stores and other places where you encounter people who aren’t part of your household, it’s important to maintain at least six feet of physical distance.
To do this, it might be necessary to come up with back-up plans, says Scottsdale, Arizona-based personal trainer Ramsey Bergeron. For example, in early March, he switched to training one-on-one with clients outside in a park, where he could maintain plenty of distance. But when gyms had to close later that month, he joked that it looked like an outdoor music festival with parks packed with people, so he had to find a new spot.
“If others don’t respect the social distance you’re trying to create, it’s best to go someplace else,” he says. “Plan in advance and think about other, less-occupied locations that may work for you.” Also, finding less popular times like extra early in the morning could mean lighter crowds.
Bergeron calls it BYOG: Bring your own gear. If you have simple equipment like a TRX trainer, resistance bands or a yoga mat, you can create your own outdoor workout space — even in your own backyard.
“I hang my own TRX up on a tree and avoid the monkey bars at the playground because there are way too many people doing pullups on that,” he says.
Another item for the gym bag, he adds, is disinfectant wipes. That way, you can clean surfaces other people may have touched, and maintain a better, cleaner space overall.
“Don’t trust your workout gloves, since it can provide a false sense of security,” he says. “My clients who wore gloves inadvertently touched their faces a lot more than those who didn’t.”
If you’re not a fan of working out on your own and you miss your group fitness classes, it’s possible you still may be able to get your fix. Much like you would with any group get-together, keep social distancing in mind, especially if you’re doing an activity where you’re getting sweaty or breathing heavily.
Limit the number of friends you invite, based on the rules for your particular state. For example, states like Minnesota, Connecticut and Michigan are currently restricting gatherings to 10 people, while other states like Arkansas and Alaska allow up to 50 people to gather as long as they observe social distancing practices.
One good tactic may be to find a gym that hosts outdoor classes and seems to be diligent about health and safety practices, says Bergeron. This means they implement policies like not sharing equipment, no communal water jugs, limit the number of participants and hold classes in a space large enough for people to spread out.
Whether you’re working out on your own or in a group that has adequate spacing, one of the biggest discussions is whether you need to wear a face mask.
Especially during intense exercise, this can be uncomfortable and claustrophobic, and some people feel like they can’t give maximum effort as a result, says trainer and endurance running coach Kourtney Thomas, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. Masks can also create moisture that can feel “gummy,” she says, and further impact performance.
On the other hand, a recent study published in Nature Medicine highlighted the fact face masks significantly reduce transmission of coronaviruses as well as influenza virus, and the Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing a mask whenever you leave home, without an exception for exercising.
Often, the decision comes down to where you’re working out — if you’re on a somewhat crowded trail or in an urban setting where you’ll likely be around numerous people, experts advise donning a mask. If it’s just you and the great outdoors, though, many people opt not to wear one, but still keep it handy just in case. Thomas’ approach is something of a hybrid model, she says.
“I wear a mask if I’m not able to be well distanced from others, and I’ve seen other runners do the same, where they head out with a bandana around their neck and then pull it up when they get closer to people,” she says. “Ideally, the best tactic is to find a place where you’re not around others, but that’s not always possible. So, having a mask ready and wearing it when you’re sharing workout areas is a good safety practice.”
No matter what kind of outdoor workout you do, the main strategies to keep in mind, she adds, are respecting the space of others, being smart about preventive measures, and of course, washing your hands or using hand sanitizer as often as possible.