Last Thursday morning, I was skiing hardpack with a buddy in Montana when the NHL suspended its season (with my beloved Bruins in first place), Wall Street fell into a bear market, my daughter’s ballet company in Boston sent all the dancers home, and my son’s college classes went online.
At the same time, thousands of coronavirus cases worldwide were newly confirmed, and not an insignificant number of people died. All this happened in the three hours I was carving euro turns amid a high-pressure system, with maybe a few dozen folks on the local ski hill.
Returning to the chaos we’re suddenly all living with was knee-buckling. But those few hours built up my immunity—not to the disease (I’m as vulnerable as anyone, and maybe more so because of my lifelong battle with asthma) but to the stress of this new but long-foretold moment. For those few hours outside, I was breathing clean air and synthesizing all the vitamin D that the Montana sun in early March could offer.
I don’t want to sound glib in the face of a deadly pandemic. We need to dramatically alter our lives to slow the spread of this virus so as not to overwhelm our health care system. My family is on board. But even as we distance ourselves from society, we can take respite in the fact that the natural world—no matter how you define it—offers refuge from a disease that flourishes in the close confines of civilization.
If you’re 100 percent healthy and don’t live in a densely populated area, practice social distancing and wash your hands, but seek safe ways to get outside. Throw a ball around in the backyard with your daughter. Find a lonely park for a walk. Ride your bike—just not in an elbow-to-elbow peloton.
People who live in more rural outdoorsy towns have even more options. On March 13, the Crested Butte Nordic Center in Colorado announced that while it’s closing the building, it will continue to groom the trails. Just stay three to six feet apart from others, as you should anywhere else. At some ski areas, you can ski-tour even though the mountain is closed for business. You're not likely to see too many others out there. In many parts of the country, hiking trails are still uncrowded.
If you’re in a city, getting outside might not be safe if the streets and parks are full of people, but you can welcome some of the outside in. At the very least, pull back the curtains to let in the natural light. Have lunch next to an open window.
One thing we probably shouldn’t be doing outside right now is vigorous athletic training, especially if we aren’t already extremely fit. While research has shown that exercise boosts our immune systems in the long run, Outside contributor Gretchen Reynolds recently reported for The New York Times that some studies suggest that a single intense workout might temporarily weaken the immune system. But even if you aren’t gassing yourself, a little exercise or simple downtime outdoors can certainly relieve stress. As my former Outside colleague Brad Wieners, who is now Patagonia’s director of copy, wrote last week in a blog: “Our salvation, or at least peace of mind, may lie less in doing more, and more in doing less—in slowing the fuck down.”
As my wife and I suddenly find ourselves with a full house again, that’s our family’s plan here in western Montana, a state which has six confirmed case of coronavirus within its borders as of March 16. If snow falls in Missoula, we’ll cross-country ski with the dog. If not, we’ll hike and sit outside by the fire pit at night.
This approach may change as the virus spreads or as we learn more about it. But in the meantime, as my exasperated mother would tell my hyper brother and I pretty much every day of our childhoods: “Go outside—now.”