Stir-crazy walkers and runners — including plenty of seniors — are heading outside for a breath of fresh air and a brief break from sheltering in place as coronavirus pandemic has widened and deepened. They’re on metro Atlanta sidewalks, running tracks at schools and on park and nature trails, sometimes clogging them.

Local naturalists say spring is a wonderful time to get up-close and personal with Georgia’s outdoors. Resultant health benefits will pile up, but experts also stress keeping health concerns and safe practices in mind during the COVID-19 crisis.

As they say on construction projects, “safety first.” And do a little homework before setting out.

Jerry Hightower
Jerry Hightower

National Park Service Ranger and environmental educator Jerry Hightower said people headed out of their homes should check on where they can and can’t go.

Hightower said trails in the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area were closed because walkers weren’t observing social-distancing guidelines. Some local jurisdictions have blocked park entrances too.

Avril Loy James follows those distancing guidelines closely. She’s a certified health education specialist and a Piedmont Women’s Heart Care coordinator. She advises staying a minimum of six feet from others and recommends wearing a mask when outside. She adds that if you’re out on a trail or street and it looks like someone is heading right for you, step out of the way safely, if you can.

Coronavirus concerns aside, James is a huge proponent of walking regularly. In addition to the cardiovascular benefits, hitting the pavement has been shown to have positive impacts on weight and stress management as well as immune system function.

She said that seniors wanting to begin putting one foot in front of the other should aim for time, not distance. “If you have, say, obesity or joint issues you might want to start out saying, ‘I’ll walk for 10 minutes, the second week 15, and the third week 20,’ “she said.

Hightower has his own yardstick.

“If you’re walking and get to the point where you can’t carry on a conversation, then you’re overdoing it,” he said. “Also take a break now and then because when you are still, that’s when you’re going to catch a glimpse of wildlife. And don’t overestimate. You can say, ‘I‘ve hiked this trail before,’ but it may have been 20 years ago.”

Both have some advice on where to go to catch the springtime display of flora and fauna.

Hightower said among his favorite places to get outside are the Chattahoochee National Forest in North Georgia, reachable in a 45-minute drive up Ga. 400. Closer in, there’s Sawnee Mountain and its several miles of trails in Forsyth County and Cochran Mill Park in South Fulton.

Avril Loy James
Avril Loy James

James said her she prefers to stay away from concrete, as trails are easier on the knees. One of her preferred treks is around the base of Kennesaw Mountain, for example. And come springtime, she said, “I like seeing all of the seedlings and saplings, all of the blooms.”

Hightower said spring is a good time to check out Georgia’s outdoors. “The trilliums (wildflowers) will be going great guns,” he said. “The native azaleas as well and the ferns.” He said that no state has more trillium varieties than Georgia.

Naturalist Charles Seabrook, who writes the Wild Georgia column for the AJC, says that Queen Anne’s Lace and wild hydrangea are among the plants he looks for.

For those wanting to spot wildlife, Hightower said a trip to the mountains can yield encounters with grouse, wild turkeys, and salamanders and, yes, bears. He said May is time when bears are emerging and becoming more active. Closer in, a large number of varieties of birds can be seen in Metro Atlanta.

“This is the time of the year when young animals are coming out and they tend to be kind of stupid. So, you could see nearly anything.” Hightower adds that it’s a particularly good reptile-observing month, in that it’s not yet so hot that such creatures restrict their wanderings to the nighttime.

Experts say said there are some preparations to consider before donning walking shoes.

“Wear sunscreen or a hat, because even if it’s not really hot there’s a lot of sun and it’s reflecting off the asphalt and you could get a burn,” James said.

She discourages wearing headphones in order to be more attuned to what’s taking place in one’s surroundings.

Hightower — who is in his 70s — has some advice specific to the mature, advising them to always carry a little more water than needed because dehydration is “something seniors need to be aware of and concerned about.” Make sure the trusty cellphone is charged up, he stresses.

“And I always carry a day pack when I’m away from the car. That includes a first-aid kit because it’s always nice to have a Band-Aid to slap on a scrape or a cut.”

James is big on stretching as you finish.

She said that if you want to stretch before you walk, do very gentle stretching. Save the more vigorous stretching for after you’re done. Of you’re only going to do one set of stretches, she said, wait until after your workout.

And, “you may not want to reconnect with old friends on a walk. You might wind up getting closer than six feet as you catch up!”

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.