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Is 6 Feet Enough Distance When Walking and Running?

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Michael  W. Smith, MD - Blogs
By Michael W. Smith, MDBoard-certified internistApril 10, 2020

I’m not much of an outdoor runner, but with fewer exercise options right now, I’ve taken to it a bit more. One thing that’s been on my mind is whether the general social distancing guideline of 6 feet is really enough for runners and walkers to stay safe.

When in the same room as someone else, standing around and talking, even if someone coughs or sneezes, research shows us that virus from an infected person could travel up to 6 feet away. That’s where the social distancing recommendations come from.

But what about when you’re outside exercising – is 6 feet enough space to steer clear of virus sprayed from walkers, runners, and bikers passing by?

A group of Dutch and Belgian researchers have started looking into that question. Using simulations, they evaluated the slipstream of walkers, runners, and bikers. That’s the trail of saliva, potentially filled with virus, they leave behind. When a fellow walker, runner, or biker breathes, sneezes or coughs, particles stay behind, creating a cloud of droplets.

According to these researchers, the level of risk could depend on where you are in relation to the other person. They believe that the risk is greatest when you’re directly behind someone – less so if you’re running side-by-side or behind and diagonal. The bottom line, according to these researchers, is that 6 feet may not be enough since you could run, walk, or bike through someone’s slipstream of virus before it lands to the ground.

Based on their estimates, if you’re walking behind someone, you should be at least 12 to 15 feet away. For running and slow biking, keep at least 30 feet between you and them, and for hard biking at least 60 feet.

Even though these researchers make a case that more distance is better, we can’t say for sure based on these findings. However, until we have strong evidence either way, I’ll keep practicing the “why not, can’t hurt” philosophy and put as much space as possible between others and me.

When I go out for a run, I treat it like a bit of an obstacle course. Other people are the obstacles. I’m not satisfied with 6 feet. If I see I’m likely to pass another runner, I cross the street (safely of course) to keep plenty of space between me and others. As important as social distancing is, the extra effort seems worth it.

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About the Author
Michael W. Smith, MD

Michael Smith, MD, CPT, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and WebMD’s Chief Medical Editor. He is also an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer with a passion for helping people live a healthy, active lifestyle. He appears regularly as an expert on national and local broadcast media.

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