Is it safe to walk, run and hike outdoors during the coronavirus crisis? Here's what experts say.

Korin Miller
·Writer
·7 min read
Man walks in park outdoors with people approaching. Photo from Getty Images.
Is it safe to run and exercise outdoors during the coronavirus outbreak? Yes, but there are risks you should know about. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gyms across the country are closed due to COVID-19, and that leaves people with limited options for exercise. At-home workouts are a possibility but, as the weather keeps improving, it’s understandable that people want to get out for a walk, run, or hike — outdoor exercise which is allowed by most states as part of their shelter-in-place guidelines, if done responsibly.

It’s easy to assume other people are being as cautious as you, but that’s not always the case. The neighborhood social media app NextDoor is filled with comments from people who felt that other exercisers weren’t practicing social distancing. “I’ve literally never seen it so crowded,” one person wrote, about running in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Someone else chimed in that her experience running was “kind of awful,” adding, that it’s “impossible to keep six feet away from people, even if I wanted, because people would run from behind and almost touch me.” Other people worried about whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can be passed on by sweat or spit droplets from passing exercisers.

Video: How to Practice Social Distancing Outdoors

So, is it safe to exercise outside right now?

It can be, but you need to take precautions, David Cennimo, M.D., an infectious disease expert and assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Laila Woc-Colburn, M.D., associate professor of infectious diseases and director of medical education at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, agrees. “Exercise and being outdoors helps us get us out to have some fresh air,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I run in the AM and it helps me to deal with stress.”

But, there are precautions you can take to make your workout more safe. Here’s what you need to know.

Can you get COVID-19 from running, walking, or hiking outside?

It’s a possibility. “You’re still taking a risk by going out,” Isaac Weisfuse, M.D., a medical epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at Cornell University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

COVID-19 is spread from person to person through respiratory droplets that are sprayed into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The droplets can then land in the mouths or noses of people who are near the infected person, and they can also be inhaled into the lungs.

The droplets are thought to be able to travel up to six feet before they fall to the ground. But a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that those droplets can also hover in the air for up to three hours before they fall to the ground. So, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you could contract the virus if someone who is infected coughs into a space right before you run through it.

Some research has also found that people can spread the virus before they show symptoms, making this doubly concerning. However, infected people are thought to be the most contagious when they show symptoms.

All of that said, most experts think you’ll be OK if you keep your distance from others. “If you keep a safe distance of six feet, you are not likely to get infected,” Woc-Colburn says.

Can the virus become aerosolized and airborne when you run?

Technically, yes. “Respiratory viruses live in droplets,” Woc-Colburn points out. But, she adds, if you keep a safe distance from other runners, you should be OK.

Can coronavirus be spread through spit?

Yes. “We know that saliva can have significant viral loads leading to any respiratory secretions being highly infectious,” Cennimo says. (A viral load is the quantity of a virus in a given volume. A high viral load means that someone is very infectious.) So, if you ran past someone who spit as they were running and you breathed in some of those droplets or they got your hands, which you later put near your eyes, mouth, or nose, you could get infected, too.

What about sweat?

It’s unclear at this point. “I have not seen evidence of sweat being infectious,” Cennimo says. But he doesn’t think this is something you should worry about. “I think it is unlikely that the virus would be shed in sweat, because others are not,” he says.

Can it be spread through snot?

Yup. Plenty of runners do what’s called “snot rockets,” where they hold one nostril and blow mucus out the other, and Woc-Colburn is particularly wary of that. “I try not running behind [other runners] now because of other people’s snot,” she says.

What can you do to be safe when you exercise outside?

Experts stress that exercising outside definitely has its perks—especially right now when so many people are cooped up inside. But you need to be smart about it. Here’s what they recommend.

  • Stay at least six feet from other people: That includes people you’re passing and ones you’re running behind, Weisfuse says. If you like to run with a buddy, make sure they’re at least six feet away at all times, too, he says.

  • Don’t run directly behind people. It can be hard not to run behind other people, but you’ll want to maintain a six feet distance and try to not be directly behind them, Weisfuse says. If you can run at an angle to them, even better, he says.

  • Bring your own water bottle. If you touch a water fountain and then touch your nose, mouth, or eyes, with your unwashed hands, you could risk infecting yourself, Cennimo says. So, BYO.

  • Try to run during off-peak hours. There have been plenty of reports of crowded parks, which Cennimo says is “disconcerting.” So, try to run when less people are out—early morning or during normal work hours—to make social distancing a little easier.

  • Change your route if others aren’t being safe. If you notice someone following too close or doing unsafe practices near you, try to change your route, Weisfuse says. You can’t control what other people do, but you can control whether you’re around them.

  • Wash your hands as soon as you get home. This is a good practice for any time you return home from being out, Weisfuse says.

  • Take off your clothes and shower. SARS-CoV-2 can live on surfaces, including your clothes, for hours. So, Weisfuse recommends taking off your clothes and putting them directly in the washing machine when you get home. Then, shower — and wash your face while you’re at it. “If anyone was potentially exposed to infectious secretions, through a cough, sneeze, or spit, they should wash ASAP,” Cennimo says.

If you love to exercise outside, it’s OK to keep doing so, provided you’re smart about it and your local health authorities still allow it. And, of course, there are perks of doing it. “Exercise could be a good stress outlet for people in quarantine, while also just being good for general health,” says Cennimo. “It does need to be done in a safe manner, though.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.