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Is It Safe to Walk Outside During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Key Takeaways

  • Walking provides numerous health benefits and is one of the easiest and most accessible forms of exercise during the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • You should maintain social distancing guidelines and stay 6 feet away from others on a walk.
  • Health experts recommend wearing a mask when outside.
  • Those with certain health conditions should stay indoors to reduce their risk of infection.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most of us move through our daily lives. There have been widespread changes in the manner businesses operate, in the way that we socialize, and in the way that we exercise. The outbreak has also increased our collective awareness of the different ways that we are vulnerable to this strain of coronavirus and to other viruses such as influenza.

As a result, many people have chosen to avoid gyms and health clubs that have slowly begun to reopen. Walking, running, and hiking on the other hand have grown in popularity. But with increased traffic on sidewalks and trails, how do you stay safe while walking—especially as spikes in cases may continue to occur?

Benefits of Outdoor Exercise

While outdoor walking and hiking is not without risks—during a pandemic or not—it offers substantial benefits that should be considered when deciding whether or not to go outside.

Provides a Gym Alternative

There is substantial concern about exercising in shared indoor spaces. A study published in 2020 showed that in some training facilities drug-resistant bacteria, flu virus, and other pathogens remained on 25% of surfaces before they were treated. And other reports have suggested that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be detected on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days. 

It is no surprise, then, that active people are reluctant to go to the gym. Whether it is to avoid exposure to a flu bug or the coronavirus, it is evident that the gym is an environment where you may be more vulnerable. But avoiding exercise altogether is not necessarily a healthy choice either.

Supports Health and Well Being

Researchers and health experts generally agree that a program of regular exercise is important to boost immune health and to help improve mental health during a pandemic.

Studies have shown that exercise has anti-inflammatory effects and that active people are less likely to present symptoms of upper respiratory illness.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, you need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity to stay healthy. Walking briskly for 30 minutes, five days a week will allow you to reach this goal. But even a 10-minute walking session can work.

Above all, as your cabin fever and level of anxiety about the future grows during a pandemic, walking—especially walking with others—can lift your mood. It strengthens your bones and muscles and reduces your risk for chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.

Because politicians deemed outdoor exercise essential in most states during the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak, walking, running, and hiking have remained accessible and have become increasingly popular. But it is still important to take preventative measures when exercising outdoors.

Safety Tips for Outdoor Walking

Researchers who have studied viruses, including influenza and COVID-19, continue to investigate the different ways that viruses spread. Study results help experts update guidelines to help you stay safe and healthy during your outdoor activities.

Practice Smart Social Distancing

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should wear a mask and practice social distancing even when you are outdoors. You can still walk with friends or family, but you should not gather in large groups and you should stay at least six feet from other people who are not members of your household.

There is some evidence, however, that a greater distance may be safer. A report published in August 2020 suggested that the 6-foot distance is probably sufficient when people are standing still and wearing masks. But when they are moving, it may be a different story. And it's possible that the speed of the activity may make a difference.

Based on preliminary research involving computational fluid dynamics simulations, researchers suggested that runners and walkers may be at higher risk when they are following closely behind one another. While the lead runner or walker is not exposed to greater risk, those in the slipstream may be exposed to potentially harmful droplets if a person in front of them has the virus.

The authors of the report suggested that fast walkers should maintain a distance of 5 meters (about 16.5 feet) and runners maintain a distance of 10 meters (almost 33 feet) when walking or running behind someone. They said cyclists should increase the distance even more. They also said that a side-by-side arrangement may also reduce exposure.

However, the authors of the study note that these findings are preliminary and much more research needs to be done to fully understand the risks. Current guidelines still state the the appropriate distance between walkers, runners, or cyclists is six feet.

Choose a Mask Wisely

Health experts advise that everyone in the U.S. should wear a nonsurgical mask when going out in public. Masks significantly prevent the spread of the virus. But the type of mask you wear can make a difference.

Experts at Harvard Health report that medical-grade N95 masks are most effective at blocking droplets that are emitted when someone coughs, sneezes, talks, or breathes. Surgical masks, masks made of polypropylene or a cotton/propylene blend, and 2-layer cotton masks are also effective. Gaiters and bandanas (often worn by runners and walkers) are less effective.

Harvard experts advise that if you can see through your mask when you hold it up to the light, or can breathe through it easily, your mask is probably not doing much to prevent the spread of the virus.

Of course, wearing a mask while walking can make conversations more challenging and may even be uncomfortable if you are breathing heavily. For that reason, some other experts suggest that comfort should also be considered when choosing a mask. Wearing any mask is better than wearing no mask at all.

Engage in Distancing Etiquette

You should also follow proper social etiquette when walking. If you see people not adhering to the social distancing rules, you should avoid saying anything. You don't know if they live in the same household. However, if you find someone getting too close to you, feel free to say something.

When walking with members of your household and you see someone coming, move to walk in a single-file line to clear a path. You also might want to look behind you every few minutes to make sure no one is approaching too closely.

Consider Transportation Options

If you plan to hike or walk in a remote location, you may want to consider your mode of travel. Researchers have hypothesized that traveling in a vehicle with multiple people with windows closed and air conditioning may pose a risk if someone in the car is infected even if masks are worn.

They go on to speculate that driving with open windows might minimize exposure. They also suggest that parking in sunlight with windows open for at least 30 minutes may help to eradicate any potentially harmful virus.

The Centers for Disease Control suggests that regardless of your mode of transportation (public transportation or shared vehicle) you should avoid contact with surfaces and practice social distancing. They also recommend that you limit the number of passengers (if possible) and sit in the rear of larger vehicles so you can remain at least six feet away from the driver.

Lastly, be aware that parking may be limited during a pandemic. Some trails may require you to park in every other space. You might want to go farther than this and park in the back of a lot where other cars (and people) won't be near you.

Practice Good Hygiene

Basic hygiene practices become more important during a flu outbreak or a pandemic such as COVID-19. Always wash your hands before and after going out for a walk. Health experts also advise that we avoid sharing water bottles and even minimize cell phone use (to limit talking) when exercising indoors or outdoors in a shared environment. 

Using hand sanitizer is also helpful. Any shared equipment (such as a dog leash or a walking cane) should be sanitized before it is passed between individuals from separate households. And most importantly, don't spit. You may see runners, cyclists, and even some intense walkers spitting because saliva can get caught during heavy breathing. Wearing a mask can help you remember not to spit.

Change Workout Clothes Quickly

Change your clothes immediately upon returning home and put them in your laundry hamper rather than in your bedroom. According to Harvard health experts, the COVID-19 virus can live on objects for up to 72 hours. If your clothing brushed up against an infected surface, the virus may stay on your clothing. This means heading home immediately after a walk or a hike and not stopping for a smoothie at the drive-thru.

And it's always smart to take off your shoes at the door and leave them outside. This won't allow you to bring any potential viruses into the home. This is especially important if you have small children who play on the floor.

Stretch and Strengthen at Home

Don't use park benches or trees as workout equipment. Even though playground bootcamps and other forms of outdoor training are fun and effective, using shared equipment during a pandemic can increase your risk of exposure. Try to keep your hands from touching anything other than your keys and your water bottle.

Tips for a Safe and Healthy Walk

There are several basic tips that can make your walk more comfortable and safe. These are not necessarily COVID specific tips, but general guidance for walkers about apparel and health.

Choose Apparel Wisely

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, you should choose clothes that pull sweat away from the skin and dry quickly. In the winter, this can help keep your body from experiencing hypothermia and make you less susceptible to getting sick. In the summer, it helps to wick sweat and moisture away from the body so you stay more comfortable.

Quick-drying fabrics to look for include terms such as Dri-fit, Supplex, and moisture-wicking. If you are heading up high trails in which you experience drastic weather changes, wool can keep you dry and cool as well.

When choosing the best apparel for your walk, run, or hike, avoid cotton as it tends to absorb sweat and doesn't dry as quickly.

Lastly, you should always wear reflective gear when you head outdoors at night to ensure visibility and wear light-colored clothing when walking or hiking in the sun to avoid overheating.

Dress for the Weather

Parts of the country experience seasonal cold weather. During these months, if the temperature dips below 55 degrees, you should consider dressing in layers. Wear gloves as well as a hat and ear coverings if you need to, as these parts of the body tend to get the coldest.

In the summer choose lightweight apparel, according to the temperature. During rainy seasons, choose waterproof gear and apparel that will keep you dry and warm (if you choose to walk in the rain).

When to Stay Inside

Not everyone should head outdoors to work out during the coronavirus pandemic. Those who are immunocompromised should get personalized advice from their healthcare provider about the risks and benefits of walking or hiking outdoors. There are some health conditions in which home (indoor) workouts might become necessary to minimize exposure to COVID-19.

Asthma

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), asthma is quite common—1 in 13 people have asthma and it is the leading chronic disease in children. Those with this health condition may want to consider a home workout where airflow and exposure can be more carefully controlled.

Asthma causes swelling of the airways and can narrow the passageways that carry air from the nose and mouth to the lungs. This can cause trouble breathing and tightness in the chest. Because the coronavirus can incite serious breathing issues, those who have asthma should be extra guarded when outdoors.

Seasonal Allergies

The COVID-19 pandemic hit at the beginning of spring when plants and flowers bloom, often causing seasonal allergies to act up. The AAFA says that such allergies can cause trouble breathing, which can make combating the coronavirus that much more difficult when you expose yourself to allergens.
To help determine if you can walk outdoors on a specific day, you can visit the National Allergy Map to see allergy levels and pollen count forecasts.

Feeling Under the Weather

Walking is one of the simplest forms of exercise—even when you feel weak or tired, you often can still lace up your shoes and head outside for a walk to get some fresh air. But during a pandemic, you need to keep your immune system as strong as possible. If you must work out, staying indoors and performing a stretching or yoga workout is a beneficial alternative.

You shouldn’t worry about losing fitness gains by switching to a different type of workout. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, yoga can help control weight and burn calories. Yoga practice can also benefit your mental health by mitigating anxiety associated with life situations, such as the stress of living during a pandemic.

Bad Weather

You also should stay inside during inclement weather. Although you might not mind walking in the rain or cold, there is some evidence that exposure to poor outdoor elements (such as extreme cold) could put your immune system at risk. In addition, health experts at the Mayo Clinic say that getting wet makes you more vulnerable to the cold, and if you get soaking wet, you might not be able to keep your core body temperature at proper levels.

What This Means For You

By getting outside for a walk or a hike, you may be able to reduce your stress and anxiety levels during the COVID-19 pandemic or during any community health crisis. You'll also gain other health benefits from a regular practice of exercise. But you should still follow recommended safety guidelines to avoid exposing yourself or others to viruses.

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Article Sources
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