What really is okay for exercising outside?

“I just wish someone would give us clear guidelines,” someone said to me the other day. “There’s so much contradictory information!”

It’s true. At this point in the pandemic, every jurisdiction seems to have slightly different guidelines for outdoor activity. In Canada alone, every province is different. Consider this weekend. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer of British Columbia, said “Please, go outside…The risk that somebody who is sick spreads this virus from coughing or sneezing outside and you walk by them very quickly, even when it is within six feet, that risk is negligible…. We always say ‘never say never’ in medicine, but the risk would be infinitesimally small.” Nova Scotia opened up its provincial trails and other outdoor activities like driving ranges, with “caution”. Most other provinces had similar advice, with appropriate cautions. But the Chief Medical Officer of Toronto “lamented” stories of people going outside, and our biggest park was closed for the weekend to keep people from congregating to see the cherry blossoms, giving us a “bloomcam” instead.

So how do we make sense of this? For the past six weeks, we’ve heard “sledgehammer” messages that the only responsible choice is to stay inside; this has led to the kind of conflict between runners and other people we normally only see between cyclists and cars. We’ve seen social media shaming and outright animosity, like this sign in NYC’s lower east side:

To try to detangle some of this, I interviewed Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist and Chief of Staff at Humber River Hospital in Toronto, and a frequent voice on CBC and Global TV. (He’s also a colleague of mine). I asked him a few specific questions from our blogger team about his perspective on outdoor movement.

What is the actual risk of spreading covid19 by exercising outside?

“It is extremely unlikely that viral transmission would happen outside without close contact — you would basically have to be right in someone’s face and that would be a really weird thing to do with a stranger.” He added, “this virus is actually pretty wimpy, and it is either killed pretty quickly by UV or dispersed by the wind.” In other words, it’s a lot safer to exercise outside than inside, but to be safe, you need to maintain that two metre distance.

What about people who are so frightened of transmission that they see all runners as a threat?

“People are frightened, and we all need to be kind and do our part to give each other space. If you’re running, it’s better for you to be the one moving out of the way if you can, because you’re going faster. Now isn’t the time to claim your turf on the sidewalk. Be kind.”

“Is the virus actually spread “in the air”?

“If this virus were airborne, we’d all have it. We are talking about droplet transmission, which lingers on surfaces, and can be directly transmitted if we are panting right in someone’s face. Think about what it’s like in a crossfit class, with all that sweating and panting — you don’t want to be doing that. But outside, transmission is extremely unlikely.”

What about swimming? Should pools be opening up?

“In a swimming pool, the chlorine would kill the virus — the issue would be with people breathing hard too closely on you. Pools should be low risk if the number of people in them is limited and you aren’t touching other people or their stuff in the change room.”

What about vigorous vs. lighter exercise? Does that make a difference?

Again, the risk of transmitting this virus outside without direct contract is almost infinitesimal — it doesn’t matter how vigorously you’re moving as long as you maintain some distance. It could make a difference inside, though– think about that sweat and moisture I mentioned before.

So you think we should still be exercising?

Absolutely — from a mental health and overall health perspective, we need to keep moving. We should be creating more space for people to move around outside, safely. We need to be thoughtful about other people’s fear, but that means leaving them space and moving responsibly.

Why are there so many different messages?

“The lockdown of the past few weeks was aimed at making sure that we didn’t have such a surge in cases that our health system was overwhelmed. In Ontario, we’ve escaped that — both because people have observed social distancing and because the hospital system did excellent preparation to reduce everything but the most essential care. With a new infectious disease like this, we want to slow down transmission so we don’t all get it at once, so we can learn more about the virus and who is most susceptible, how to treat people who are ill, give us some time to get the science ramped up, and so we can keep our health system functioning. We have never had to do this before — so the basic message of “stay home” is the simplest. But as we open things up gradually, we will need to each take some accountability for resuming activity in a thoughtful way. We need to maintain physical distance for a while, but that doesn’t mean not moving. It just means being responsible in how we do it.”


You can follow Michael on twitter at @DrMichaelGardam. And I appreciate his time and insight, so much.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who went for a happy socially distanced run after their conversation, turning around at the entrance to the closed trail.

7 thoughts on “What really is okay for exercising outside?

  1. I just don’t understand why people don’t have common sense: outside is the safest place to be as long as you are not two inches from someone’s face. For crying-out-loud!

  2. Being outside with hardly anyone close by or no one close by, with some Nature is comforting also. Freeing.

    For sure, I don’t like joggers close to me, since some have sweat and moisture flying from them…but other than that just cycle on quiet paths and roads during quieter times of day.

    We have lots more space in our cities…compared to other big cities in other countries. It shouldn’t take such huge effort to plan to bike, walk or run solo. Perhaps that’s part of the issue: some people find it harder to do it solo.

  3. I don’t know. I have sympathy for how new Yorkers feel. They’ve been hit so incredibly hard and I think the rest of us in other parts of the country or world can’t really imagine what they’re going through. I’m in southern California and our beaches are open for walking only, no stopping and playing in the sand. We did a drive up the coast the other day and, I got to be honest, I was a little judgmental about how many people I saw with no mask. Why? Because it was quite busy. We saw crosswalks with at 20 people grouped waiting to cross. Well, look, I get you don’t need a mask when you’re walking, but bring one with you so when you get in that situation you can slip it on. (Also, they made it a requirement to have one in our county) There’s value in helping your community feel safer in your presence. And it’s the fact that so many didn’t even have masks with them,that makes me not have confidence in these soft reopenings.

  4. Would love advice on where to buy masks for biking or other outdoor exercise! Would be super happy for suggestions of where to purchase from black-owned business(es).

    1. I have had the best results finding masks by posting on my neighbourhood facebook page and asking for local recommendations — I found an excellent queer-owned business in Toronto that I can connect you with if you don’t find someone 😉

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