Can I go for a walk during a global pandemic?

File photo. (Daniel Reche / Pexels)

Going for a walk is widely known to reduce stress and relieve anxiety – both of which are in great supply during any global pandemic. As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across Canada and the globe, getting fresh air and spending time in nature can be a good way to relax and stay sane.

But with government officials ordering Canadians to stay indoors and practise physical distancing, many are left wondering: is it safe to go for a walk during the coronavirus outbreak?

“The answer is yes and no,” Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti told CTVNews.ca via telephone on Wednesday. He’s an infectious diseases physician with Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont.

While he admits there’s nothing wrong with going outside for a walk, Chakrabarti advises people to do so only with those of the same household, and to stay close to home.

“This minimizes exposure to the virus,” he said. “You see everyone going for a walk in downtown Toronto and it defeats the purpose [of physical distancing].”

The doctor said he goes on walks with his wife and two daughters, but they only go as far as up and down the street. He advises others to do the same, or travel around the block. Most importantly, people should keep a distance of two metres from those around them, avoiding public areas and large crowds.

“It’s not that the walk is inherently bad, it’s the potential for everybody to be doing it at the same time that’s the problem,” he said. “The main goal is to be distanced from people not in your household.”

Dr. Jeff Kwong, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, said these recommendations differ depending on the person’s condition. Those practising physical distancing or under quarantine with no symptoms are able to go outside, he said. But those who are self-isolating and symptomatic should not leave the house.

“It’s important to note that distinction,” he told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday via telephone.

In a media briefing last week, the World Health Organization offered advice on how to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, the institution recommended exercise – at least 30 minutes a day for adults, and one hour a day for children.

Suggestions for physical activity include walking or running at a safe distance from others, as long as government guidelines allow for it. If they don’t, the organization recommends indoor exercise in the form of dancing, yoga, and walking up and down the stairs.

In terms of Canada’s guidelines, recent directive from government officials has been clear: stay indoors. In his daily briefings, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to implore Canadians to avoid spending time outside. In a video posted on the prime minister’s Twitter account Monday, Trudeau urges Canadians to stay home and spread the word using #StayAtHomeSaveLives.

Despite calls to stay inside, the Public Health Agency of Canada describes going outside for fresh air – which can include walking the dog or going for a run or bike ride – as acceptable for Canadians to do while self-isolating.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, shares the same message, insisting it’s acceptable for Canadians to leave their homes, even while self-isolating after travel.

“There is no danger if someone who is self-isolating goes for a walk outside and stays 2 metres away from others,” she tweeted. “Going outside and being active should be encouraged.”

Evidence of Canadians doing exactly that appeared all over social media last weekend. Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach, for example, was packed with visitors, despite the declaration of a state of emergency by the government of British Columbia.

Meanwhile in Toronto, although streets were notably empty, one Facebook user captured this photo of a boardwalk crowded with visitors.

“It’s absolutely impossible to travel down this boardwalk and be less than six feet from others,” wrote Stuart Knight in the caption. “And in some cases there are joggers weaving in and out of people breathing heavily.”

Addressing the disregard of its recommendations, the federal government warned it could resort to tough enforcement measures to keep people at home if Canadians don’t start taking self-isolation and physical distancing seriously.

"Let me be perfectly clear: We will use every measure in our toolbox at the federal level to ensure compliance," said Health Minister Patty Hajdu on Sunday, at the government's daily press briefing in Ottawa.

While going outdoors is not against the law, Kwong said he understands why the government is considering tougher policies on physical separation.

“The principle is that we want to maintain physical distance,” he said. “But in practice, people are not following government recommendations.

“People who are saying not to go outside, this might be a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “But we may need to go that way if we keep seeing groups of people congregating outside.”

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