Your Guide to Being Outdoors During the Pandemic
Carolyn Swope, MPH | May 19, 2020
As time in our homes wears on while the weather warms up, many of us are wondering how safe it is to venture outdoors into local streets, parks, and other green spaces. Being outdoors can benefit our health and well-being and support our resilience during this challenging time. Of course, it is paramount to follow local guidelines related to stay-at-home orders, and to avoid leaving your home if you are sick or if doing so would otherwise go against health officials’ recommendations. However, when it’s permissible under local policies around preventing Covid-19’s spread, the good news is that there are some easy precautions we can take to help promote our health and safety when outdoors. Read on to learn more about some of the benefits of spending time in green spaces, the risk of transmission indoors vs. outdoors, and tips to reduce your risk when you are outside.
The Benefits of Being Outdoors
Being outdoors benefits our health and well-being in a number of ways. First, spending time in nature has been linked to beneficial psychological effects — such as better moods, reduced stress, and improved attention and cognitive performance — that can be particularly valuable during this challenging time. As the emotional toll of Covid-19 weighs on us — from anxiety over getting sick and sorrow over lost loved ones to fear of economic precarity, or simply feeling cooped up indoors — finding ways to support our mental well-being is all the more important.
Second, during a time when most gyms are closed, the great outdoors beckons us to walk, run, or otherwise enjoy some ‘green exercise’ in nature. As discussed in our Immune Health and Fitness article, physical fitness can help keep your immune system robust so that your body is better able to fight off infection. Green exercise enables the benefit of physical activity and also the mental health benefits of being out in nature! One study found that even just 5 minutes of green exercise helped improve people’s self-esteem and mood.
Finally, getting a healthy dose of natural sunlight every day is important for helping keep your internal clock, or ‘circadian rhythm,’ in sync. Many of our body’s functions naturally operate on a 24-hour cycle that mirrors the solar day. One example is sleep, as covered in our recent Sleep Health article. When this rhythm is disrupted, it can lead to sleep issues and other negative outcomes. Light is the primary way that this clock is ‘set,’ so getting daily exposure to the right light at the right time of day — i.e., bright light in the morning and darkness at night — is critical. Indoor lighting doesn’t always provide that, so getting some time outside, especially in the morning, can help your body stay in sync. As always, make sure to use appropriate protection to prevent sunburn. Like fitness, getting good sleep can help keep your immune system strong and resilient to infections.
Being Outdoors and Covid-19: What’s the Risk?
While being outdoors is, of course, not risk-free, experts believe that the risk of viral transmission might be lower in large, open outdoor spaces with fresh air, where the virus can dissipate rapidly, as compared to indoors, where spaces are often enclosed and confined. That does not negate the importance of staying at least 6 feet away from others and avoiding crowding — although experts think that briefly passing someone while running or walking is low-risk. Indeed, Drs. Ned Friedman, Joseph Allen, and Marc Lipsitch concluded in a recent editorial that “The science could not be clearer: The benefits of getting outside vastly outweigh the risk of getting infected in a park.”
If you do go outdoors, make sure to take appropriate precautions. In addition to staying 6 feet away from other people, if not more, wear a cloth face covering and wash or sanitize your hands afterwards. Stick to open areas where the risk of touching anything is minimized, rather than spaces that involve the use of equipment or close contact with others, like playgrounds. And of course, be sure to follow any guidelines that your local government has set regarding the use of parks and other public green spaces.
It’s important to keep in mind that the risk won’t go down to zero even if you take these precautions. So if going outside isn’t an option for you, keep in mind that there are other ways to access the benefits of the great outdoors:
- Research shows that viewing nature through a window, looking at a picture of a natural scene, or even listening to nature sounds can offer some of the psychological benefits of nature exposure.
- You can increase your exposure to light in the morning by spending time in a room with natural light or using tunable light bulbs.
- Finally, check out our article on Immune Health and Fitness for ideas on how to maintain a healthy exercise regime at home.
Edited by Regina Vaicekonyte