August 31, 2020

The Great Outdoors: A Panacea for Your Mental and Physical Health during COVID-19

Tom Neal

Tom Neal

By Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA, CEO and CNO of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital

As we learn more about how to live safely during a time of pandemic, I’ve heard some people declare that they’re grateful for the fact that the outbreak didn’t occur in the winter, when it was cold. I understand that, because it would have increased our sense of isolation and limited what we could do to manage our stress, which is considerable as we wonder what work, school and holidays will look like in the coming months.

Getting outdoors has been a godsend for many during this time of quarantine. Hiking, biking, running, swimming and other activities offer a way to feel a bit more in control of our lives, create a healthy routine, get exercise to benefit our bodies and have an outlet for our stress. I myself am an avid runner and hiker, and though these activities have always balanced my busy work weeks, they do so especially now.

Staying safe in the great outdoors requires some advanced planning, as well as staying aware of your surroundings. Even if you know your destination very well, it’s possible to get disoriented while hiking, or go in the wrong direction if we’re distracted by an imminent thunderstorm. Before you leave the house to go hiking, you should always pack your knapsack with high protein snacks, like nuts and dried fruit, plenty of water to stay hydrated, an extra shirt or jacket, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a map and your phone — and get a compass app. Sometimes a low-tech approach is better too, because no matter what, you can use a map, but if cell service is spotty and you depend only on your phone, you could get in trouble.

It’s important to think about the overall theme of protection too, when you do anything outside. Wear breathable clothing to discourage overheating, proper footwear designed for the activity you’re engaging in, and sun protection in the form of sunscreen (strength 30 or above), sun-protective hats and high-quality UVA- and UVB-shielding sunglasses are musts.

Speaking of the sun, do you know how to identify a suspicious mole? It’s critical to catch the most common type of skin cancer, melanoma, as early as possible, so take a good look at your skin periodically. Remember “ABCDE,” and you’ll be all set. When a mole is Asymmetrical, or each half is uneven, has a Border that’s uneven, or is several Colors, from tan, brown, and black, to red and white, these are all signs that you should have it checked out by your dermatologist. If it’s more than 6 mm in Diameter (the size of a pencil eraser) or it Evolves and changes, these are also causes for concern.

If you’re an avid gardener or enjoy hiking or trail running, it’s important to become familiar with poison ivy, oak or sumac, all of which contain an oil called urushiol, an allergen that most people react to in the form of an itchy, painful rash. If you learn how to identify these plants, you can avoid them — the old saying “Leaves of three, let it be,” is easy to remember, and still comes in handy. Protecting your skin with long pants and sleeves also limits your exposure.

Finally, every spring and summer, our ER sees people who have allergic reactions to bees, even when they’ve never experienced one before. These can be serious and patients can go into anaphylactic shock (when your throat closes up, preventing you from breathing), a life-threatening condition. If you are allergic to bees, it’s vital to travel at all times with an EpiPen, the lifesaving device that instantly and easily delivers a dose of epinephrine, a medication that stops the allergic reaction in its tracks.

Getting outdoors is more than worth it, especially when you manage the risks associated with outdoor activities effectively. Time in nature is a great de-stressor, and that’s something we all need to do right now to maintain our mental and physical health.

In closing, I want to remind you that we are practicing the safest protocol at Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, the Eckerd Living Center and all of our affiliated practices, as per recommendations from HCA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We encourage you to continue practicing the “Three Ws”: wearing a mask, waiting so you can keep at least six feet of distance between you and others, and washing your hands frequently. These three simple things have proven to be the most potent measures we can take to prevent the spread of the virus.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital aerial view

Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA, is the CEO and CNO of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, a member of Mission Health, an operating division of HCA Healthcare, is a community hospital serving Macon, Jackson and the surrounding counties. Located on Highway 64 between the towns of Highlands and Cashiers, the hospital offers 24/7 emergency care, acute inpatient care, rehabilitation, as well as long-term care through Eckerd Living Center. Highlands-Cashiers Hospital has 24 beds for acute care services and 80 beds in the Eckerd Living Center. Ambulatory services are also available, including therapy services and primary care practices serving both Highlands and Cashiers. For more information, please visit