The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has dominated headlines and the need to curb the transmission of the contagious virus, aka “flatten the curve,” is clear. However, terms like “social distancing” and “shelter-in-place” have led to some confusion: One of the biggest questions is whether venturing outside for a walk is still advisable (and allowed). The short answer is “yes, walking is allowed unless you (or someone in your household is sick), in which case you should stay home,” says Craig Janes, PhD, director of the school of public health at the University of Waterloo.
WHAT SOCIAL DISTANCING AND SHELTER-IN-PLACE MEAN FOR WALKS
Since the rules and regulations are rapidly changing, it’s always a good idea to check a reliable source such as the CDC website, but for now “you are mostly allowed to take a walk,” says Janes.
In many cities, like Seattle, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and Kansas City, local authorities have announced shelter-in-place orders (also called stay at home or safer at home orders) to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This means you should only leave your home for essential needs such as going to the doctor or grocery shopping. However, outdoor exercise is still permitted provided you follow social distancing guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines social distancing as maintaining a separation of six feet from other people.
In California, Santa Clara County Public Health noted an exemption to its shelter-in-place restrictions that residents may leave their homes, “to engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements … by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking or running.”
In some places like France, there is a set distance where it’s acceptable to go for a walk or jog — 2KM or 1.2 miles from your home. In the UK, exercising is currently limited to once per day.
In Italy, which is under a country-wide lockdown, there are even tighter restrictions and you can now only take the dog for a walk within a 200-meter radius of your home. Otherwise, if you do not have a dog or an essential need to go outdoors, you must stay at home (except to go to the doctor or get groceries). If that’s the case and you need to get steps indoors, try these at-home options.
HOW A WALK CAN BOOST YOUR HEALTH
“Being outside [on a walk] in the fresh air is good for your physical and mental well-being,” says Janes. Not only can it help you strengthen your heart, lungs and muscles, but it can also boost mood levels, increase energy levels and help alleviate depression.
What’s more, spending time in nature can be especially helpful during stressful life events, according to research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
SAFETY TIPS TO KEEP IN MIND
Avoid popular walking routes in favor of less crowded alternatives and cross the street or offer a wide berth if another walker is also on the path. Your commitment to social distancing not only protects others who are out for their daily walks, but it could keep you safe, too.
It appears the virus can remain suspended in the air for about 30 minutes, according to new research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which means walking past someone who sneezes or coughs could expose you to the virus.
Janes also warns that the virus can live on plastic and stainless steel so avoid the drinking from a water fountain and touching benches in the park. After you come home, be sure to wash your hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“It looks like we are going to be dealing with the virus for a while so the more we can think about staying healthy, the better,” says Janes. The health benefits of regular movement, including a daily walk, are one of the reasons the CDC lists regular exercise along with stretching and meditation as important strategies to manage stress and anxiety during the pandemic.
Whether you’re a beginner or more advanced, walking is an easily accessible and versatile form of exercise. “Just be careful, maintain distance from other walkers, avoid touching surfaces [outdoors], practice good hygiene and enjoy your walk,” says Janes.