How to Exercise With a Friend When Your Social Distancing Practices Differ

Walk around any city or town and you’ll see that some people are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, while others are interacting with people the way that they did before the pandemic. If everyone in your social circle subscribes to the same social distancing guidelines that you do, you may not think twice about the disparity. But what if you’ve been dying to go for a walk or run with a longtime exercise buddy whom you haven’t seen lately, except that your friend isn’t being as vigilant about social distancing as you are?

“​This is a challenging time for determining what is ‘safe’ to do,” says Lynn Bufka, PhD, the American Psychological Association’s associate executive director for practice research and policy. “We have conflicting information from different sources, and our determination of risk might differ from others. Each will have to make an individual determination by weighing one’s own risks, family risks, and needs. With that as context, a person will have to make decisions regarding exercise with others.”

Deciding How To Exercise Together

If you’re planning to see a friend from a different household, an outdoor walk or run is less risky than meeting at an indoor track or gym. Public health experts recommend that you stay six feet away from one another and wear masks; however, they recognize that mask usage may not be practical when people are running or exercising at high intensity.

When it’s hot outside and you plan to work up a sweat with an exercise buddy, it may be okay to work out without a mask if you consciously stay at least six feet apart and agree ahead of time to go mask-free in each other’s company, unless the local legislation requires mask-wearing.

“How comfortable are we? What’s our mutual risk tolerance? You can have that conversation,” says William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine in Nashville. “I think six feet is certainly reasonable for no masks. Remember, this is all predicated on the notion that these have both been careful people.”

It’s also important to consider your location, which may impact whether or not it’s safe to exercise without masks.

“Are you in a neighborhood where you only occasionally or rarely encounter others… or are you someplace in a much more metropolitan area or even in a park where there are a lot of people?” Schaffner says. “Let’s say you’re away from people, you’re not close to others. Well, then I think you can more safely exercise without masks. [But] if you’re exercising or walking around others and that density increases, then you really should be wearing a mask.”

Broaching the Topic When Social Distancing Habits Differ

What if you want to walk farther apart and your friend wants to walk closer together, like old times? You may feel awkward discussing the parameters of a proposed walk or run with a friend who isn’t following social distancing guidelines as stringently as you; some people worry that it could cause an argument or that they’ll be perceived as judgmental. If you’re really eager to walk or run with a friend whose habits differ from yours, talk specifics ahead of time, to see if you can agree about how to interact.

“Ideally, friends listen to one another and honor one another’s requests; that is the basis of friendship,” Bufka says. “If someone has a concern about another’s practices, it is best to be straightforward in advance and clarify one’s own practices and inquire about the other person’s behavior.”

Keep in mind that you and your friend may not come to an agreement about logistics, even if you talk for a while.

“Recognize that people do things for different reasons,” says Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, whose areas of expertise include decision-making, risk analysis, and communication. “Expect some misunderstanding. People [tend] to overestimate how well they communicate, especially with new topics. In a personal relationship, that means being alert to signs of talking past one another and ready to clarify what you mean. Your friend may take the cue to do the same.”

It’s possible that your friend may be upset by your request to walk six feet apart or wear masks. It may help if you speak calmly or change the subject if things get intense.

“People can take offense or read judgment into anything we say,” Bufka says. “Trying to stay as neutral as possible and acknowledging that each wants the best for the other may help others hear one another.”

Choosing To Postpone Your Workout

After having an honest discussion with your friend, if you can’t agree on guidelines to follow during your exercise session, it’s okay to bow out.

“If the friend chooses not to respect your requests, you can politely excuse yourself and let the friend know that you will join them another time when it is possible to wear masks, physical distance, or no longer be concerned about transmission of COVID,” Bufka says.

When you let your friend know that you don’t feel comfortable walking or running with them right now, use “I” language, rather than “you” language.

“You can do that in a very nice way and say, ‘I understand… but I’m very conservative… I’m wearing a mask and I’m only around people who wear a mask during this COVID period,’” Schaffner says. “If you listen very carefully to what I said, I didn’t say anything about them. I took it all on myself.”

Being Vigilant While Exercising Together

Although you and your exercise buddy may agree to walk or run without masks, consider whether you’ll truly be able to stay as far apart as you intend. Opting for masks may be the safer option.

“Frankly, I think that six feet will be hard to maintain,” Schaffner says. “I think those people are going to drift closer together. They may not get as close as they usually do. But again, it’s what your risk tolerance is.”

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