How to leave your house and still be socially responsible right now.

By Rachael Schultz
Mar 27, 2020 @ 11:00 am
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With new states issuing stay-at-home orders daily, more Americans are being told the safest way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is to stay inside. But what’s being less communicated is when and how much we’re allowed outside.

And allowed, you are. The specifics around what is and isn’t okay in each state or municipality does vary. Mostly, you need to confirm whether you can head out with a distanced friend or if you should be staying solo. But so far, all the stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders include some kind of provision allowing for walks, rides, and runs. (That doesn’t mean it’s kosher to have a picnic in the park with 10 of your closest friends or hike up the most popular hill in town.)

“During this pandemic, it is still safe to go outside to get some fresh air and sun, as long as you continue to practice physical distancing,” says Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., a practicing family physician in Phoenix, AZ. “That means staying at least six feet away from other people whether you are going for a hike, walking your dog, or jogging in the neighborhood.”

Not only is it allowed, but, as long as you do so safely, it’s actually encouraged by physicians and mental health professionals alike. And that’s largely because getting outdoors will help with pretty much every woe of #quarantinelife:

For one, sunlight activates and mobilizes key immune cells, according to a 2016 study out of Georgetown University Medical Center. Low-intensity exercise also boosts your immune system, helping up your chances of fighting off either COVID-19 or a run-of-the-mill cold.

Moreover, heading into the natural elements can help reduce anxiety, improve depression, help you recover from mental fatigue, and boost your creativity when it comes to problem solving. Getting away from walls and into nature can also help reduce rumination — or, repetitive, negative thoughts (um, sound familiar?). And going outside is a great way to unplug from the 24/7 news (and anxiety) cycle we're all currently trapped in, Dr. Bhuyan points out.

If you live in more concrete than jungle, even just looking at the branches of a tree or the blue sky can help activate the neurotransmitters and immune response that deliver all these physical and mental benefits, adds Jessica Ericson, M.D., assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Penn State Children’s Hospital.

Here’s how to get outside during quarantine, safely:

Get out for 30 minutes every day if you can.

Even in a pandemic, the standard recommendation of 150 minutes of exercise per week still stands for healthy people. That works out to be about 30 minutes a day. Obviously you can hit a portion of those minutes sweating inside. But aiming for a 30 minute walk most days is a great way to combine the physical and mental health benefits of both moving and being outdoors, Dr. Ericson says.

Choose your friends wisely.

Solo excursions or outings with people you already live with are best — we know people can be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, Dr. Bhuyan points out. But, barring states where socializing outside the home is currently illegal or highly discouraged, it is safe to stroll with someone else to get your social fix — as long as you actually stay at least six feet apart, at all times.

Considering exposure is the number one thing to avoid here, minimize your risk by limiting those you see to people taking that distance rule as seriously as you, Dr. Ericson advises.

Stick to wide walkways.

“The amount of time that you spend outside is not nearly as important as what you are exposed to outside,” Dr. Bhuyan points out. Secluded areas like backyards and empty trails are ideal. Your next best bet is picking a public place with a lot of walking room. Strolling through Central Park is actually going to be safer than being on a narrow single track, Dr. Ericson says, since the wider the walkway, the easier it is to keep distance from the people around you.

Stay off playgrounds.

Empty playgrounds may be tempting for your toddler or new outdoor workout routine. But considering COVID-19 can live on plastic or steel for 48 hours, jungle gyms are a harbor for germs — which becomes especially risky considering how much children and sweaty adults alike touch their face. Keep all your adventures on the grass or trail, both docs agree.

Passing people is fine.

"The greatest risk of transmission is being close to another person for more than a few minutes," says Dr. Ericson. You're probably fine to pass someone on the sidewalk, even if it's within six feet, especially when you take the wind and outdoor elements into play. The exception: If you hear or see them coughing or sniffling, cross the street and avoid getting close.

Plan ahead.

Avoiding groups and crowds is crucial, but it takes some strategizing. Plan your daily stroll, run, or ride early in the morning when less people are out. And use apps like AllTrails or Strava to discover new, lesser-known paths outside (hint: the less check-ins on a route, the better).

Don’t forget, fun is still allowed.

Go for a bike ride around town, kick the soccer ball around with a safely-distanced friend, make your S.O. a picnic in the backyard — enjoying the day is still legal. “We don’t want people to put themselves at risk of getting infected or infecting other people, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything that’s fun or recreational or pleasurable,” Dr. Ericson says. Besides, people who feel happier, more positive, and more energetic have a better immune system, according to multiple studies (like this, this, and this).

If you can’t get out, become a plant lady.

“We have a good bit of data to suggest you can get some health benefits just from being around indoor plants or artificial nature,” Dr. Ericson points out. A 2015 Korean study, for example, found touching and nurturing potted plants activated people's parasympathetic nervous system (that’s the opposite of your fight-or-flight response) and reduced their stress levels. Other studies have shown even just looking at pictures of green spaces have the same de-stressing effect. If you live in a place or have health concerns that make it too risky to go outside right now, change your screensaver to a jungle, binge on nature documentaries, and watch the wind blow trees out your window.

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.