Is it safe to run or exercise outdoors?

  • There’s little risk to be infected if you’re exercising outside by yourself
  • The CDC recommends you wear a mask when you’re in public
  • Avoid high-traffic times and crowded areas

The coronavirus pandemic has presented a catch-22 for people who like to go running and participate in other forms of exercise outdoors. Though fresh air and sunlight may provide extensive benefits to our mental health—which, let’s face it, is really needed in these uncertain times—others worry that the risk of exposure and transmission to the virus outweighs those benefits.

The short answer is that running or cycling outside solo produces minimal risk. Angela Rasmussen, a Columbia University virologist, told Vox that the risks of virus transmissibility in the air outdoors though airborne aerosols are “likely quite low.”

“Outside, things like sunlight, wind, rain, ambient temperature, and humidity can affect virus infectivity and transmissibility, so while we can’t say there are zero risks, it’s likely low unless you are engaging in activities as part of a large crowd,” she said. Solitary outdoor exercise is likely low-risk—although that risk has not yet been definitively measured.

“I think relatively little COVID-19 transmission would occur outdoors, except perhaps in large crowds,” agreed Benjamin Cowling, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong. “Running is good for health, and transmission risk should be minimal, both for others, if a runner were infected, or for the runner, if they passed by infected people.”

Do I need to wear a mask while running?

However—and this is a big however—runners should engage in common-sense practices while exercising outdoors, both for their own safety as well as the health and peace of mind of anyone they may encounter on paths or sidewalks. This is especially true in large cities and urban areas. And yes, this includes wearing a mask or other face-covering while exercising.

The CDC already strongly recommends that everyone wear a mask of some kind when they leave their home, and some cities and states now even require it. 

Dr. David Nieman, a health professor at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus, told Runners World that the optimal plan for those who want to exercise outside is to go out for solo runs and enjoy the outdoors—but to time your activity in less crowded areas or when you know the trails will be less crowded. The emphasis, according to Nieman, is going alone.

“When people congregate together and someone sneezes or coughs, droplets get onto objects that people touch, and then people touch their face,” Nieman said.

Does wearing a mask make it more difficult to run or cycle?

Obviously, running or cycling with a mask—particularly, in nice weather—is going to be less comfortable than running without a mask.

“Airflow will be restricted, so your body will have to work harder to perform at the same rate as you would without the mask, and that becomes exponentially true as the intensity goes up,” Patrick Davitt, the director of the University of Sciences’ Health Science Program, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The faster and harder you’re breathing, the more the mask is going to affect that.”

Dr. Grant Lipman, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at Stanford University who studies extreme athletes and wilderness medicine, said exercising in a face mask will “create a warm and humid microclimate around your face” due to the mask trapping exhaled breath. It essentially turns the bottom half of your face into a “mini-sauna.”

To avoid that effect, and to achieve the greatest comfort during a strenuous workout, Lipman suggested wearing a buff. Geared toward runners and other athletes, these buffs consist of a tubular facial covering that is typically used as a headband, but can also be stretched over the nose and mouth. Typically made from thin and synthetic fabrics, buffs are designed to reduce heat buildup and additionally promote more airflow than standard surgical masks.

But for those who absolutely cannot bear wearing a mask or facial covering outside while exercising, Davitt suggested finding less crowded areas and avoiding peak hours. 

“As long as you’re running alone in an unpopulated area, you can keep the mask at home,” he adds. “But if you see someone in your oncoming path, cross the street well in advance. It’s just common courtesy as a runner.”

Nieman also recommended bodyweight exercises or running on a treadmill at home, if possible, for healthy individuals who don’t feel comfortable exercising outdoors.

It should go without saying, however, that those who are sick or at-risk of spreading the virus should not go out whatsoever, as the main concern is infecting those who are at high risk, such as the elderly or immunocompromised. “If you do have flu or coronavirus, or have fever, sick people think wrongly they can ‘exercise the virus out of the system’ or ‘sweat it out,’ that’s a myth. It’s actually the opposite,” Neiman said.

Sources: New York Times, Vox, Philadelphia Inquirer, Runners World

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