How to Safely Work Out Outdoors During the Summer of COVID-19

Gyms are reopening. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t avoid them.

"Need a spot clean?"
"Need a spot clean?"
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Stating the obvious: it’s going to be a weird summer.

More than 116,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and the latest numbers from the University of Washington’s model (the one previously used by The White House) predict an additional 200,000 deaths by October 1. 

In other words, it’s not the time for complacency. States that reopened earlier are seeing the surge of their second wave. Healthcare workers are still overstretched and under-geared, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about this virus. For instance, experts aren’t even sure if having COVID-19 once will prevent someone from getting it again.

“Now is not the time to be lax. Just because things are opening, it doesn’t mean that the virus has gone away,” says Dr. I-Min Lee, MD, ScD, Professor of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In the same breath she concedes, “but life needs to go on, we need to be physically active for our health. So be physically active but be appropriate and careful.”

Sure, it’s a bit of a paradox. Exposing yourself to other people outside the home exposes you to the virus, but physical activity enhances your immune system and can reduce stress levels; being outside in the sun gets you vitamin D exposure which is critical for immune response, but other people are out there walking too close and breathing on you. Not to worry, Lee — a professor of both epidemiology and medicine at Harvard — has some expert guidelines for how to stay safe but keep moving this summer.

Avoid indoor gyms. While some states have reopened their gyms for limited use or even full access, outdoor fitness classes or personal training are by far a safer bet. “The wind disperses viral particles, and UV radiation we know degrades most viruses, explains Lee. “Now it’s not to say it completely kills it, but the risk is lesser than indoors.” Even if your gyms have reopened, Dr. Lee recommends taking it outside, saying she’s leery of any space where you don’t control the cleanliness.

Keep it clean. Revisit your COVID-19 basics. “The usual advice we give about maintain your social distance, wash your hands before and after, don’t touch your face, still holds,” she says. Apply this to any equipment you are using, and bring your own mat, water bottle and towels for any outdoor workouts. Sanitize early and often. 

Always pack a mask. Whether exercising vigorously or going for a walk, Lee says bring your mask and be ready to quickly pull it up. In an urban environment, it’s hard to know if you are truly alone — we’ve all been surprised by someone popping up around a corner, right? For outdoor workouts, Dr. Lee understands the mask is restricting: “Ideally, I would say wear it, but I understand it’s not comfortable. I get it, it’s hot, it’s humid.” For those reasons, she recommends a gaiter-style mask (like Buffs) that you wear around your neck and pull up. It’s easier to manage than a mask that loops around your ears, and the lightweight versions typically offer UV sun protection. 

Double your social distance. During workouts, expand your distance to 12 feet from the next person. “When you are exercising vigorously, your lung volume and the rate of your breathing goes up, so theoretically there’s a risk of spreading droplets further,” explains Lee. She says COVID-19 is so new that we don’t know for sure it would travel this way, but it makes sense, since you breathe twice as hard while exercising (six feet times two equals 12 feet). For football fans, that’s about five yards. 

Protect vulnerable groups. In most urban areas, COVID-19 has been most deadly for racial minorities. For example, 70 percent of Chicago’s early deaths were Black and Brown individuals. “Clearly there’s race and ethnic disparities for various reasons, probably excess, systemic discrimination,” notes Lee. Ideally pull on your mask as you pass anyone (you never know who is immunocompromised), but certainly keep it in mind for non-whites and those over 65 years old.

Take up lap swimming. As there’s no evidence that COVID-19 has been spread through swimming pools (the chlorine probably kills a lot of the virus, according to Lee), expect pools to open up for lap swim workouts. Maintain your distance in the water, and be mindful of the surfaces you touch on your way in or out of the water. It should go without saying, but don’t wear a mask underwater.

As stay-at-home orders ease up and the weather gets warmer, it’s the perfect time to get outside and get moving. Be safe, be responsible and enjoy.

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