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Column

Getting outdoors during COVID-19

It takes 647 steps to walk around my block.

I have lived in this Des Moines neighborhood for more than a decade and walked this lap hundreds of times. But in recent weeks, as we have been staying close to home because of the COVID-19 outbreak, I have come to appreciate this little piece of the outdoors more than ever. I'm looking a little closer for the birds nests, noticing which trees are budding first and thinking about what part of my yard we can plant to prairie next.

With two young kids, the outdoors have also kept us sane and grounded. In addition to lots of time in the yard, we've been finding less populated nature areas nearby to get fresh air. We just have to have a pep talk about giving people appropriate space before we head out.

Suddenly, in a time of isolation and worry, nature has become more valuable than ever. It is a place to take a break from the news, clear our heads and find connection. Being outdoors and getting exercise can help to boost your immunity, and sunshine is a good disinfectant (but not as good as sanitizer with 60% alcohol).

At INHF, we have long-preached the value of getting outdoors. Not only does it improve your physical and mental health, the simple act of being outside can grow an appreciation for nature — a stronger desire to protect it. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is it safe to be outside? In short: yes, as long as it is done responsibly.

Outdoor spaces such as parks, trails and state recreation areas have seen a big uptick in use over the past few weeks. So when planning to venture outdoors, use common sense. If you suspect that it will be difficult to maintain a safe distance of 6 feet between yourself and others at your usual spot, find somewhere else to go. How far is 6 feet? Here is some context:

Six feet

The American Hiking Society has created a good list of questions to ask yourself before recreating outside. Most importantly:

• Check ahead to make sure the park you want to go to is open

• Wash or sanitize your hands often

• Avoid close contact with people from outside your household

• Prepare for limited access to public restrooms and other facilities

• If you're sick, stay home

It is also recommended that you only travel regionally to get outdoors, both to limit the number of stops you'll have to make, and to prevent the spread of coronavirus to or from other communities. If you are finding your local parks too crowded, consider getting more familiar with county parks, state preserves and wildlife management areas (WMAs). Keep in mind that WMAs are often used for public hunting, and turkey season starts April 13 in Iowa.

Even if you can't — or don't want to — travel to get outdoors, this is an opportunity to appreciate the nature in your neighborhood. Spring is a great time to notice nature changing around you. You can even think about ways to make your corner of the world a little more wild. INHF staff have also been recommending some of their favorite nature-themed books over the last few weeks.

If you're interested in lessons in creek-jumping and ravine climbing, my 6-year-old son is a self-proclaimed expert. He would be happy to set up a video conference and offer a few tips. When we were on our way home from some responsible social distancing and hiking at Yellow Banks Park last weekend, he told me, "This was the best day. I'm dirty, but in a good way."

So get outdoors. It's a great and safe place to be right now. Just be smart about it.

Joe Jayjack is the Communications Director at Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

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