Expert Q&A: How to stay fit - and safe - during coronavirus pandemic

How to stay fit - and safe - during coronavirus pandemic (2:44)

Many people are asking about exercising and playing outside during the coronavirus pandemic. Tisha Thompson seeks answers from Lauren Sauer, from Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2:44)

YOU'RE STUCK AT home and desperate for some exercise, but is it safe to go running or walking? What about a little tennis with your regular partner? What's the big deal about going to an empty-looking beach? Is it OK to walk your dog? And can your stir-crazy kid play with just one neighborhood friend?

Lauren Sauer, director of critical event preparedness and response at Johns Hopkins Medicine, answered many of the questions people are asking about exercising and playing outside during the coronavirus pandemic.

Can I safely play tennis with my buddy if we stay 6 feet away from each other and never cross onto the other side of the court?

No. Even if you stay 6 feet away, you can still transmit the virus through the ball, Sauer said. "A single cough can produce up to 3,000 droplets," she said. "These can slowly fall to surfaces such as balls and gym equipment. Any surface that is coming into contact with potentially infectious bodily fluids is a risk, especially in the environment where you may have a false sense of security because you're thinking that you're social distancing -- like tennis, for example.

"You might cough accidentally into your hand when you're out of breath, you might wipe sweat off your brow and then touch the ball. You might touch your eyes," she said. "It's the environment that is problematic because you're increasing your risk of exposure to these particles because you're more likely to touch your face when you're sweating."

Researchers in Germany recently found that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can last up to three days on plastic. Most athletic gear, including many tennis balls, footballs, basketballs, golf balls and soccer balls, is made largely of plastic.

The study found the virus also can last three days on stainless steel, which is why local governments in many places have closed off access to playgrounds. "There's a lot of high-contact surface there," Sauer said. "Kids don't wash their hands while they're at the park, and it's a lot of opportunity for infection or exposure."

Some golf courses are touting that sport as a safe way to be active with the right precautions -- observe the 6-foot rule, no shared golf carts, no touching the flag stick, and so on -- but think long and hard before grabbing the sticks. And if you go, steer clear of other objects you might encounter, such as door knobs, railings, benches and sand rakes.

Another study of related coronaviruses found that some last eight hours on aluminum bats, four days on wooden objects such as golf tees and baseball bats, and up to five days on rubber items such as lacrosse balls and yoga mats, depending on heat and humidity.

Sauer said natural materials such as leather, wood and rubber have antimicrobial properties that can help fight the virus. But anything with a seam -- a baseball, football, soccer ball or a volleyball, for example -- could allow the virus to survive a thorough cleaning.

My kid is really lonely. Should I allow him to play with his best friend?

Probably not. Sauer said this has been one of the toughest messages to get through to people. Children who don't live in the same household should play together only if they stay 6 feet apart, on separate sides of a fence. And they shouldn't throw anything back and forth. "It's been really hard to communicate about this with this outbreak because we don't see a lot of infection in kids," she said. "But it's important to note that kids often are the people who are transmitting the virus to their parents, to grandparents. And so kids might become sick from neighbors, from friends, and you might not know it, and then they might spread it." She encouraged parents to let their kids run and play if they have access to a private backyard or an open field away from other people. "Try to find secluded but open common spaces," she said. "Get those kids out there and let them play. Take your conference call out there if you're working from home."

Seriously, though, how dangerous could one jog with a friend or one game of basketball with my next-door buddy really be?

"It can make a huge, huge difference," Sauer said. "Say one kid passes a basketball with another kid and that second kid becomes infected but is not showing symptoms." That kid then passes the virus to a parent, who then goes on a run with a friend, who then visits an older relative. "Or they could get sick themselves and have to go to the hospital. And that is a person who then has to take up a ventilator for someone else who otherwise would need it." That one game of one-on-one basketball could, in theory, cause a whole wave of people to hit an emergency room, Sauer said. "If you stop the spread by doing things like social distancing, you reduce people all at once going to the hospital. And then you make it so that the people who really need those hospital resources can get them when they need them." That's what "flattening the curve" is all about.

The sidewalks and trails in my area are starting to get busy with everyone itching to get outside. Is it safe to walk or jog if other people are there?

It depends on whether you can truly stay 6 feet away from other people -- and the cloud of droplets they emit. "This virus, we think, is primarily spread by droplets," she said. "When you talk, when you cough, when you blow your nose or even when you just exhale, you create droplets. And those droplets are going to be suspended in air for a little bit of time." You don't want to walk through that space while the particles are falling, Sauer said. "When you keep that 6 feet of distance, you're reducing the risk when you walk through the air and have one of those particles hit you in a place where it could get into your mucous membrane -- into your eye, your nose, your mouth."

"This is why you want to give people a wide berth when you're on a trail," she continued. "Look for the least populated places ... if you have to get out of the house and do something like walk your dog or go for a hike. If you get to the trail and there's a ton of people on it, go to a different trail or skip it that day. If you're walking your dog in your neighborhood, you want to keep that 6 feet apart. Try not to pass directly. Try not to touch other people and even keep your animals apart. You don't want to get up close to someone with your animal because they could get something on them or transmit themselves. We don't understand how this even works in animals. So we want to keep the animals separated as well."

If I stay away from people, is it OK to walk the dog while I have some mild symptoms associated with the coronavirus, or after I've been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19?

You may do this only "if you live in a less-populated environment, if you can walk on a rural road or go to a space where you can really be away from each other," according to Sauer. "But if it's a park, city street, or even suburban sidewalks, you can't truly safely do that. You should not be doing it."

What about places like the beach? Is it safe to go if we don't see any other people or if we stay at least 6 feet away from others?

No, you shouldn't. "I just think going to beaches is problematic and people really shouldn't be doing it," Sauer said. Much of her concern revolves around access points to and from beaches, which can be high-traffic areas with lots of people touching railings, stairs and other objects. "At beaches, you go up one or two ramps to get out to the broader beach area. Those are access points where people tend to congregate, touching the showers to rinse your feet, for example."

So, what can I do for exercise if I live in an apartment in a densely populated area?

Sauer said she is impressed by the quality and quantity of free exercise classes being offered online. You can do many of those in front of your TV or computer. "There are a lot of the yoga studios, fitness studios, places like that that have transitioned a lot of their classes to online. There's a ton of people on YouTube and Instagram who are offering free fitness classes. Take advantage of those." Even if you live in a small studio apartment, finding ways to exercise is one key to getting through this time, she said.

"I understand the challenges of not being able to access things that you relied on, not just for physical health, but mental health," she said. "Exercise is absolutely one of them. I try to remind my colleagues at Hopkins that we have to take care of ourselves, because taking care of yourself now means you're going to be more well-equipped to fight off the virus."