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Everything You Need to Know About Exercising Outdoors During COVID-19

Rachel Lapidos

Rachel LapidosMay 31, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/DjelicS

Mile High Run Club, a fitness studio in New York City, isn’t ready to open its doors just yet. Instead, the brand is shifting its strategy to host outdoor guided runs to minimize groups congregating and encourage social distancing. The workouts will take place on local tracks or in parks within the city, and will have all of the signature in-studio details: running intervals mixed with strength training, minus the treadmills.

The running studio isn’t the only boutique fitness brand that has to rework its strategy due to COVID-19. According to a recent Classpass survey of 300 partners, 31 percent plan to experiment with outdoor classes. Out of 1,000 Americans polled in the same survey, a whopping 70 percent of people expressed a “strong preference” for outdoor classes versus going back to the studio, noting that “fresh air would help them feel safer,” and four in five said that they’re willing to try these new takes on boutique fitness.

Switching to outdoor workouts does have more of a green light from experts when compared to reopening fitness studios. “It’s better to exercise outdoors than indoors because you’re not in an enclosed space and there’s less worry about wiping down surfaces and equipment,” says Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, PhD, microbiologist and co-director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at Mount Sinai. “Outdoor workouts are a step in the right direction, but don’t let your guard down regarding the typical precautions.”

With so many people interested in exercising outdoors, we wanted to get to the bottom of how to do it as safely as possible. Keep scrolling for what pros had to say.

The current thinking regarding outdoor exercise

According to the current research (and granted, there’s still a lot that’s unknown about the transmission of COVID-19), exercising outside seems generally safe, so long as you’re not doing so in large groups, and you’re keeping your distance from others (something, it’s important to note, that these organized outdoor exercise movements will have to solve for). “It’s best to go to isolated areas as opposed to a crowded park or other area, and I’d keep some type of face mask covering on even though it’s uncomfortable,” says Purvi Parikh, MD, infectious disease immunologist and allergist with the Allergy and Asthma Network.

One of the main reasons that pros urge caution is because there have been some concerns raised regarding how much distance exercisers should maintain from one another. Early in April, Belgian researchers published a widely criticized model of the slipstream that runners leave behind when they take big inhales and exhales (a slipstream is essentially the Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail equivalent of the droplets that tag along behind an athlete as they breathe).

While keeping six feet distance from others has generally been considered the gold standard by the Centers for Disease control and other top health authorities, this model suggested that for exercisers, who are taking deeper breaths and propelling that (potentially infected) breath with added force, this amount of distance wasn’t enough. Instead, the Belgian model proposed that runners should instead maintain up to 32 feet, while cyclists should maintain double that.

But after looking into the data behind how this slipstream model was conceived, many authorities around the internet had beef with the construction and resulting data of the model. Because this it was developed in a vacuum-like environment, it didn’t take into account real life factors that make transmission of viral particles outdoors more difficult than in enclosed, indoor spaces. As it stands today, the conclusion seems to be that it is possible to transmit the virus while exercising outdoors, but it’s unlikely to given the size of droplets expelled and the generally minimal length of exposure to them in outdoor settings.

What it would take to transmit the virus outdoors

To ease fears further, in a read-by-everyone blog post about COVID-19 risks in early May, Erin Bromage, PhD, an immunologist and professor of biology at Dartmouth wrote: “You would have to be in [the jogger’s] airstream for over five minutes for a chance of infection,” he writes. Plus, he adds that the infinite outdoor environment dilutes the virus, as does sunlight, heat, and humidity. From his research, Dr. Bromage stresses that both dose and time of direct contact are the factors that determine infection, which is why exercises that involve forward momentum (like running) likely have a lower risk.

What’s more, in a recent Chinese study of 1,245 cases of COVID-19, it seems that only two of the cases were actually transmitted in an outside environment, but it’s better to play it safe than sorry. “At the moment, there is no consensus on how to properly stay safe during exercising because of the aerosol concern,” says Jason Tetro, microbiologist and author of The Germ Files. Dr. Parikh points out that we’re learning about this virus as we’re treating it, and admits that she “wouldn’t recommend taking any unnecessary risks.” But she adds that wearing a face mask can reduce the spread by up to 70 percent.

The future of outdoor workouts

Next to Zoom workouts which clearly offer a much lower risk of transmission, with outdoor exercise on the rise, let’s talk about precautions to take. “Outdoor classes can make participants feel more safe by offering plenty of room to spread out, and they have added benefits such as a boost of vitamin D,” says Julia Healey, Classpass director and head of account management, who sees these as growing to be a larger trend this season.

While it’s generally agreed upon that upwards of 30 feet of distance is excessive in most cases, keeping distance is a main way to stop the spread of the virus, so keep it in mind when you venture out. “The further away from others, the better, and the more distance between people makes the risk of infection less likely,” says Dr. Garcia-Sastre, who actually believes that having a speed component (i.e. running and biking) decreases the risk even more. “For strength training activities that aren’t high in cardio, I’d recommend wearing a face mask or covering if possible, and try to maintain a distance of more than six feet away from others,” says Dr. Parikh. She says to aim for 15 to 20 feet.

It goes without saying the other general COVID-19 safety guidelines apply as well: sanitizing whatever you’re using for equipment, avoid touching your face, bring your own mat or equipment if possible, and—again—proper social distancing. When it comes to using community wellness equipment (think bike shares, gated park entrances, and public benches), you should still be abiding my best hygiene practices. “Biking is okay, but with any shared equipment, you need to clean the bike and disinfect the seat, handlebars, and the bike itself between uses,” says Dr. Parikh. And when you aren’t around to wash your hands, make sure that you’re bringing hand sanitizer (with at least 60 percent alcohol) along to spritz after you touch surfaces.

“Any time you come back home, make sure you wash your mask and clothing that you had on while outside,” says Dr. Parikh. “Try to leave your sneakers outside of your home so you’re not tracking anything inside.” It’s the best that experts can recommend until more is learned about the virus.

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