Should I go outside in the COVID-19 era?

(Herald file photo)

Saskatchewan in Motion, Submitted

By Louise de Lannoy, Marina Brussoni and Mark Tremblay of Outdoor Play Canada

Can I go outside? Is it even safe for me to go outside? As “social distancing,” “physical distancing,” and “self-isolation” enter the global public lexicon and we are transfixed to the news trying to understand how to protect ourselves and our loved ones, there has been a great deal of confusion as to whether we can go outside and take our children out to play.

Canadians are being asked to practice social distancing (more recently and appropriately being called physical distancing) to decrease the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Physical distancing involves ‘taking steps to limit the number of people you come into close con- tact with.’ Unless you are told to self-isolate, practicing physical distancing includes going outdoors. In fact, the Ottawa Public Health Unit lists ‘spending time outside and in settings where people can maintain a 1-2 metre distance from each other’ as one of the ways to practice physical distancing.

Many people may assume they should stay indoors, when in fact, they should stay apart. This can be readily, and responsibly done in the outdoors, while benefiting from its many health promoting features.

Transmission is less likely outdoors

Why is it safe and recommended to go outdoors as part of physical distancing practices? Getting outdoors reduces the risk of transmitting viruses (including COVID-19), whereas being indoors is actually worse for virus transmission, such as being in closer contact with those who might be sick, and being in dry, indoor environments.

Outdoor physical activity makes our immune system more robust

When we go outdoors, we are more physically active, reduce our screen time, and sleep better – and all of these things makes our immune system more robust and increases our defence against COVID-19 and any other challenge to our health. Getting outdoors increases our exposure to sunlight, which boosts vitamin D levels, which can in turn boost the immune system and reduce risk of infection.

While it may be tempting to indulge in movie marathons, stay up late, and become lax with screen time restrictions for ourselves and our children during this pandemic, now more than ever is the time to adhere to healthy movement guidelines to maintain a healthy immune system and build a strong defence.

Getting outside is an essential part of this, especially for children. As we’ve stated in the Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play, when children are outside they move more, sit less, and play longer, all of which is important to maintain physical and mental health.

Connecting to community and making isolation less isolating

Being outdoors, walking around your neighbourhood, sitting outside to watch the birds as the weather warms, playing with your kids – all of these types of activities are good for your mental health and may help you feel more connected to the environment and less isolated while maintaining physical distancing. Do not engage in such activities in large groups!

Important for children’s ability to process what is happening right now

Getting kids outdoors for active play may also help them process the new normal right now. Outdoor play provides children with a sense of control and agency over their own actions and is important for social-emotional skill building. Play is therefore especially important to help children process their own emotional responses to adversity and stress, such as with the current pandemic. It provides an important and much healthier environment option than screen time, and it will help them sleep better.

How to get active outdoors

Several cities have closed playgrounds or limited access – obey these decisions. Go to parks that remain accessible, ideally at off-peak times to avoid crowds. Be prepared to return home if it is too crowded to practice physical distancing. Use other outdoor spaces, such as drive-ways, backyards, sidewalks, cul-de-sacs, and forests while respecting distances and infection etiquette (e.g., staying 1-2m apart, coughing into elbows, washing hands when back inside).

For guidance on physical distancing while using parks and trails see the statement from the National Parks and Recreation Association.

There are a number of resources available to help families stay active. Saskatchewan in Motion has an interactive Outdoor Physical Activity Idea Jar, and Childhood by Nature has a number of free nature-based educational resources.

Consider taking micro breaks outdoors. For parents trying to get a full day’s worth of work done while at home, taking small physical activity breaks outdoors with kids may just be the way to do this, while helping their, and your, physical and mental health. Daily physical activity recommendations (for adults or children) do not have to be met in a single bout.

Above all: stay safe, stay healthy. Getting active and outdoors, while adhering carefully to public health guidance can help cope, contain, and combat COVID-19.

Saskatchewan In Motion made a bingo card for walkers to make a game out of their trip.

National and international COVID-19 resources

The Government of Canada web page is an excellent resource for the latest updates on COVID-19 in Canada and has created a number of easy-to-understand resources on how to stay safe during the outbreak.

For international updates, the World Health Organization is a key resource.

For resources on physical distancing and when and how to self-isolate, the Ottawa Public Health Unit has a number of excellent guidelines.