Health and Wellness

How to stay safe when people are breathing heavy while running, walking outside amid coronavirus pandemic

@katiekhromova | Twenty20

Taking a walk or going for a run outdoors during the Covid-19 pandemic can be a saving grace for your mental and physical health. But in a time when we're all supposed to stay inside, it might seem ironic that there are more people gathering in outdoor spaces to jog.

The chair of New York City Council health committee, Dr. Mark Levine, tweeted Saturday that running paths in Central Park and Riverside Park were overcrowded.

Mark Levine tweet

New York Times writer James Poniewozik tweeted in late March that he stopped running outdoors because it was too anxiety-inducing to wonder if he would be infected by others.

James Poniewozik tweet

So can exercising outdoors unintentionally put you or those around you at risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19?

The answer is complicated.

Running and walking outside are some of the safest activities people can do right now, "assuming they follow the actual social distancing guidelines," Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chairman of the department of medicine and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau tells CNBC Make It.

Covid-19 is believed to spread through respiratory droplets from an infected person who coughs, sneezes or talks. There's also new evidence that suggests that people who are asymptomatic can shed and spread the disease, although the exact mechanism isn't completely understood. For these reasons, it's important to maintain a social distance from other people and wear a cloth face covering when you're in public.

Generally speaking, germs dissipate very quickly outdoors, Glatt says, but that doesn't mean you can give up distancing and other Covid-19 prevention measures outdoors.

You'll probably have to temporarily change where and when you run amid the pandemic, Dr. Ravina Kullar, infectious disease researcher and expert with the Infectious Diseases Society of America, who is also an avid runner, tells CNBC Make It.

But "If you're running by yourself and you're running in an area where you're not encountering other people, it's very healthy," Glatt says. 

Here's what you need to know about running, walking and exercising outdoors during Covid-19:

Give people more than 6 feet of space

The familiar guidelines to stay six feet from other people to prevent the spread of coronavirus are based on a "closed environment," which means it doesn't take into consideration factors like wind or heavy breathing that could influence how far your respiratory droplets disperse, Kullar says. 

For example, a recent research model suggests that respiratory droplets from bikers and runners may spread 33 to 65 feet depending on the speed. (But there were some issues with this research. For one, the researchers didn't take into consideration wind, and some experts say they overestimated the likelihood of someone being infected by the droplets.) 

There's also some evidence that the virus may also spread through smaller particles, aka "aerosols," which would be able to travel farther than six feet.

Regardless, it's wise to maintain a longer distance when you're walking and running outside, around 12 to 20 feet, she suggests. "There's no reason to get closer," Glatt adds.

And if you see a runner approaching you, give them a wide berth to pass you, Dr. Ellen Foxman, assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine who studies the natural mechanisms that protect the airway from respiratory viruses, tells CNBC Make It.

Wear a face covering even if it's uncomfortable

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where it's tough to maintain social distance, such as the grocery store or pharmacy.

While face coverings can be uncomfortable when you're huffing and puffing on a walk or run, you should still wear them to prevent spreading the infection to other people. Even if you feel fine, you could be an asymptomatic carrier.

"Even if you're walking or running, wearing a bandana or something like that is sort of a polite thing for others more than for yourself," Foxman says.

Kullar says wearing a "Buff," which is a tube of fabric that runners often wear on their necks for extra warmth, might be more comfortable than a mask because it's stretchy and sweat-wicking.

Run solo but be street smart

You should not run on a busy street or trail at a busy time or run with a group of people, and you should not stop to talk to other people you see on your run, Glatt says.

If you find you get bored without your jogging buddies, consider calling them on the phone and chatting during your run.

Ideally you should run alone, but that may not feel safe for some people in certain areas, Foxman says. In that case, it's okay to run with another one of your household contacts, because there's no added risk of exposure, she says.

"You don't want to abandon your normal common sense in choosing a safe place to run," she adds. 

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