How to Build Physical Activity Into Daily Life on Trails During COVID-19

Posted 11/20/20 by Cory Matteson in America's Trails, Health and Wellness, Trail Use

Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C., and Maryland | Photo by India Kea

This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and true trail voices around the country, and how trails have impacted the lives of Americans during COVID-19. Learn more at and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.

Over the past months, our relationship with the outdoors has changed. Since COVID-19 forced the nation to “stay home” this spring, and surging cases and new lockdown measures are being taken in recent weeks, massive numbers of people have flocked to trail systems across the United States. Walking and hiking on trails are at an all-time high in some areas, and there are widely reported shortages of new bicycles and overworked bike mechanics.

Runner on Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C. | Photo by India Kea
Runner on Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C. | Photo by India Kea

When I was talking to a Paris, Texas, bike shop owner for a story about the NorthEast Texas Trail, he said he was telling customers that getting their old bikes serviced would require about a month’s wait.

There’s been that kind of demand for gear that gets you outdoors. Which makes sense.

Getting outside right now, especially on local trails, can provide a wealth of benefits to your body and mind—once you get in the habit. Some of the most common trail activities—biking, skating, running—can burn over a thousand calories in an hour’s time. And being out in nature—especially right now, as more people are staying home and cool weather is making people less inclined to step outside—can strengthen your resilience and mental health.

A Healthy Lifestyle Strengthens Your Defenses Against Coronavirus

Runner on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C. | Photo by India Kea
Runner on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Washington, D.C. | Photo by India Kea

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (think walks, bike rides), or 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity (think those two things, plus hills and/or speed). Keeping active, the CDC states, helps to prevent weight gain, reduce depression and curb heart disease, among its many benefits. 

Physical activity is also a direct defense against the Coronavirus, according to Jim Sallis, a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) board member and health psychologist, and Michael Pratt, a preventative medicine physician. The two University of California San Diego faculty members co-authored a paper that, drawing from previous research, lists six ways in which an active lifestyle is directly relevant to the pandemic, while also being beneficial to general well-being.

Those connections include a few that are widely known. Being physically active has been shown to help people cope with stress and improve mental health, and it helps prevent and treat physical conditions, including obesity, heart diseases, diabetes, eight types of cancer and hypertension. Being in good shape mentally and physically, they write, generally improves your defenses.

And being physically active also improves some specific defense mechanisms involved in combating the coronavirus. Muscles produce compounds during physical activity that strengthen two biological processes (immune system function and inflammation reduction), which can potentially reduce the severity of COVID-19 infections in the lungs. Exercise, they write, also helps balance cortisol and other hormone levels, which can be thrown out of whack in stressful situations, or with age. And antioxidants produced during endurance exercise may prevent or reduce the severity of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which has been “a serious and common outcome among those hospitalized with COVID-19.”

On top of all of that, people who are physically active have been shown to have improved immune responses to vaccinations.

“Physical activity is one of the most powerful forces for good health,” Sallis and Pratt wrote. “Any kind of enjoyable moderate activity, indoors or outdoors, is great for mind and body. Going for a walk outdoors can be a high point of the day for millions, and could help us get through this pandemic while preserving as much quality of life as possible.”

According to the CDC, many Americans are at risk of missing out on those benefits. Only 1 in 4 adults, and 1 in 5 high school students, meet the CDC’s guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. Trails offer a space to reach recommended exercise goals, and personal ones too.

How to Use Trails to Build Physical Activity Into Daily Life

Find Your Own Path—and Pace

Runner and river guide Colleen Cooley out on the trail | Photo courtesy Colleen Cooley
Runner and river guide Colleen Cooley out on the trail | Photo courtesy Colleen Cooley

When Colleen Cooley was growing up, she attended a boarding school where morning runs were mandated. At 6 a.m., she and other students got up and put their miles in. It was part of the overall structure: alarm, run, chores, school, homework, repeat.  

“That was our routine, and (running) was part of our routine,” said Cooley. “Maybe some of those memories made me not want to run.”  

Cooley, who is Diné (Navajo), grew up to become a river guide and remote worker—years before the pandemic converted millions more people into remote workers. The remote life allowed her to travel the Southwest, connecting with and advocating for sacred Navajo lands and waters during hikes, climbs, rafting and camping trips.

Then three or four years ago, she was staying with some friends in Tucson when, she said, something inside of her wanted to run again. She laced up her shoes, headed to a wash that runs through the Tucson basin and put in two start-and-stop miles. On her time, at her pace, it felt good.

“And I've been running ever since then,” Cooley said.

From the New York Times to Real Simple to, there are numerous guides to getting started, or getting back into, running. Many encourage run-walk combos to build up to steady runs, along with setting schedules to reach targeted distance or speed goals. Cooley didn’t take that route, exactly.

“For me, it goes back to connecting to my surroundings around me and appreciating that,” Cooley said. “When I run, it's not about beating a certain time or racing anybody. It's more just healing for me. It feels good. I need to balance that out with my work when I do work on a computer or in an office. Where I feel most content and most connected is being outside. This is mentally and physically and spiritually good for me.”

“And so during these challenging times, I hope you can make time to connect with nature if you can,” she wrote on a recent Instagram post. “I know some of you may not have easy access to it, but do what you can, because we are part of nature, not separate from it.”

Everyone has their own relationship with running, Cooley said, and the Native Women Running account showcases an array of those relationships. In the process, the athletes featured provide all kinds of valuable advice that can help you examine your relationship with running. Here are a few recent examples:

Take This Time to Pedal a Little Off the Beaten Path, and Enjoy the Breeze 

Earl Erickson riding a recumbent bike. In 2017, a bridge on the NorthEast Texas Trail was dedicated to Erickson in Paris, Texas. | Photo courtesy NETT Coalition
Earl Erickson riding a recumbent bike. In 2017, a bridge on the NorthEast Texas Trail was dedicated to Erickson in Paris, Texas. | Photo courtesy NETT Coalition

NorthEast Texas Trail President Earl Erickson said he started riding bikes for exercise in the middle of a scorching, humid, Houston-area summer back when he was in his marathon training days. A friend of his owned a bike shop in Pasadena, Texas, and offered a tantalizing suggestion: “Why don’t you try biking, because you’ll get a little breeze?”

Erickson went in and got fitted for a bike; that was key, he said. Then, like he did with running, he played a little mind trick on himself to build a riding habit. Every day when he got off work at 5 p.m., he immediately jumped on the bike and rode it for an hour or so. And he told himself his workday was from 8 to 6. Other than that, he had one more vital piece of advice.  

“Start reasonably,” he said. “Don’t overdo it to start it. The main thing is to get your butt in shape. It’s getting your butt and those nerves back there in shape.”

Once that happens, you’re ready to roam, he said, which is convenient these days. In a June 11 post titled, “Biking During COVID-19,” Washington Area Bicyclist Association Communications Director Colin Browne wrote that now is the time to use your bike to do some exploring around your home.

“If you do not have a required destination, try for a meandering route that doesn’t include a popular destination, or try and go for an off-peak time,” Browne wrote.

His suggestion: “Find the weirdest thing you can in your neighborhood. Seek out a new favorite tree. Is it more fun to ride up or down the steepest hill in your neighborhood?”

Make a Game Out of It

Trails and Treats Day 2020 on Kansas Trails | Courtesy Special Olympics Kansas
Trails and Treats Day 2020 on Kansas Trails | Courtesy Special Olympics Kansas

Jesse Lyle, health and fitness counselor for Special Olympics Kansas, has helped develop a collection of programs designed to help the athletes he works with get outside, explore their surrounding trail system, become more physically fit and develop confidence in the process. At a recent event, 53 Special Olympians, their family members and caregivers walked over 80 miles on the Mission, Kansas, trail system, with prizes going to the first six athletes who recorded 3,000 pedometer steps. When asked what advice he gives people that lead to those numbers, he didn’t have any. He had a system instead.

“I don't actually use verbal advice to get people out on the trails,” Lyle said. “What I use is game-based strategies. I'm really proud of this stuff because we designed it and developed it so it's very authentic to us. Incentivizing trail usage and getting their feet out there, we created a points system.”

From Strava to FitBits to iWatches, millions of people track their biked miles or calories or steps. Lyle added spiders to the mix. More accurately, Special Olympics Kansas designed a weekly scoring sheet for groups of athletes to keep track of their activities and observations. Participants can rack up points for spotting different types of spiders and insects, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, plants and trees. They also get points for different trails walked, number of miles collectively walked and for finding one geocache per week.

“We wanted something that was fun, something that was engaging,” Lyle said. “Having objectives to go outside is what gets you outside.”

See What You’re working with, and Get a Walk in While You’re At It


Maureen Hoffmann, WABI Burien President | Courtesy WABI Burien
Maureen Hoffmann, WABI Burien President | Courtesy WABI Burien

“I live just south of Seattle, and I’ve been so pleased to see more people out walking and bike than ever! Folks can get fresh air and exercise and get out of the house in the midst of stay home orders.”

—WABI (Walk/Bike) Burien President Maureen Hoffmann


AARP Livable Communities Director Danielle Arigoni said that when she’s talked to staff members in state offices over the past six months, she’s hearing that seniors have been out walking more, and in ways they never did before the pandemic.

“So it's this really ripe opportunity to educate people on what a good pedestrian environment looks like,” she said.

One way people can do that, while also logging some miles, is by conducting a walk audit of the pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in their community. Arigoni said that AARP state offices lead them periodically, and that the results can lead to improved exercise opportunities for community members, reduced traffic and pedestrian-friendly environments. In the process, she said, conducting an audit gives people the language to understand what it is about an environment that feels safe and comfortable or feels unsafe and uncomfortable.

"Trails are more usable and more accessible to people if they're well-lit, if there are places to rest, if people can get to them, if people know where they go, how long they are,” Arigoni said. “Those kinds of amenities really make a difference for older adults in terms of how they feel equipped or powered or welcomed to use trails."

You don’t need a group to conduct a walk audit. The materials are available to download online, and you can also request printed materials from the AARP on the website.

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