As the official start of summer approaches, many Canadians are taking advantage of the pleasant temperatures and moving their workouts outdoors. But, as with everything else that was “normal” before the pandemic, COVID-19 is impacting how we can safely work out outside.

Canadian outdoor recreation company Mountain Equipment Co-Operative (MEC) connected with Ontario-based infectious disease specialist Dr. George Farjou, M.D., for tips on how get outside safely during COVID-19.

Here, he explains the science behind COVID-19 transmission and how it applies to outdoor runners, his thoughts on gym reopenings and how to safely exercise outside.

Is there any scientific proof that runners and those who exercise outdoors are more likely to be spreading coronavirus? If so, how concerned should people be?

To date there have been no studies investigating the potential of acquiring COVID-19 infection during outdoor activities, such as running.

One pre-print study from Korea suggested from their contact tracing that the majority of transmission occurred in confined environments rather than from outdoors.

Another study evaluating indoors aerobic exercise (a dance fitness class) found participants who were infected to be linked to their instructors.

While we cannot use evidence to inform a decision on infection risk while running or performing outdoor exercise, it is prudent to maintain your physical distance from others outside of your own household while outdoors. It is unlikely that unless someone who is exercising is breathing heavily within a 6 foot radius of you that they will pose an infectious risk unless you are directly downwind from them – but that is my conjecture, not fact.

How can people exercising outside best protect both themselves and those around them?

If running, make sure you are maintaining as much distance as possible between each other and try to stay even further than six feet away if you can as exercise will likely produce some droplet nuclei from the exertion. Also avoid being directly downstream from another runner. Try not to pass other runners or pass them from a very wide berth. If you feel like you can adequately wear a cloth mask or buff while running, this might be an option until we have more evidence.

If exercising outdoors, do not use playground equipment as it is unclear who else has touched it. Bring hand sanitizer and avoid touching your face. Maintain adequate physical distance. Choose an area where there is not heavy traffic so others do not pass into your space as you exercise. Wear a mask (cloth is fine) if you feel that you can breathe adequately.

Is six feet still the standard distance runners should keep away from each other?

That is the recommended physical distance from data-based on droplet spread assuming one is stationary (i.e. not moving). It is unclear that as aerodynamics change as you are running how that radius of droplet nuclei changes and the infection risk that poses. I would suggest that six feet is the minimum distance but to be cautionary, I would propose being even further apart if possible as heavy breathing or coughing during a run could expel the droplet nuclei farther than six feet.

What are the safest forms of exercise people can do outside right now?

It is still unclear if there is a significant infection risk posed from being outside. Maintain as much distance as possible, go to as secluded a place as possible with minimal interaction with others (an off the beaten trail, your own backyard, etc.) and wear a mask if it does not impact your breathing. If you have an uncontrolled respiratory illness such as asthma, are elderly, or have heart disease, diabetes or immune compromising conditions then I would not recommend exercising outdoors as those are higher risk groups for infection.

When gyms re-open, what precautions should people take?

There is no guidance, but I have given this a lot of thought. There needs to be a maximum number of people allowed in at once [so that] everyone can maintain 6 feet of distance apart at all times. Booking ahead to schedule a session would likely be advised to manage numbers, and limiting time there to 60 to 90 minutes per person would also allow this, as well as closing all group fitness classes for the time being, maintaining six feet between all cardiovascular equipment such as treadmills and installing plexiglass around remaining treadmills. There should be a minimum of 6 feet between all stationary equipment and benches and no moving of benches. There should be mandatory wiping of all equipment after personal use, with employees around to enforce this and hand sanitizer widely available throughout the area. No showering or use of pools or saunas/steam rooms should be permitted. There should also be a mandatory closure for each gym in the evening to do a deep clean of the equipment before re-opening for the day.


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