The fog that descended on Hong Kong yesterday added to the sense of claustrophobia residents are experiencing as our daily lives continue to narrow amid a Covid-19 crisis. Most people have sensibly decided to stay at home with case numbers hitting more than 50,000 a day and the death toll soaring. There is not much to go out for anyway with so many venues either choosing to close or required to shut their doors. In these difficult times, there is little room for diversion. That makes exercise all the more important. It is one of the few leisure activities left. Going for a run or hike has been a salvation during the pandemic. But even this is becoming more of a challenge. It is not just that gyms and other sports venues have had to close. Masks must now be worn even when exercising outdoors. A similar rule was imposed very briefly in August 2020. Since then there had been an exemption for “strenuous exercise”. Quite what constituted “strenuous” was open to interpretation. Some were clearly stretching the definition. Walking your dog might just about be considered strenuous in some cases. But merely donning a tracksuit to go to the shops doesn’t qualify. Such fine distinctions have been swept away by the new requirement. It raises other problems, however. Running in a mask is not easy or particularly enjoyable. It is difficult to breathe and the mask quickly becomes wet, reducing its effectiveness. Some casual joggers will give up and wait until they can run mask-free. Hong Kong logs 37,529 Covid cases; ‘15 per cent of residents may be infected’ Similar considerations apply to hiking. Taking a walk in Hong Kong’s stunning country parks provides a rare chance to get away from other people. The sense of freedom was enhanced by the legal right to remove your mask. Now, my three-hour hike with a rigorous uphill climb has become far less appealing. I suspect the new rule is being honoured more in the breach than in observance. Hiking groups larger than the two permitted are still seen and many have masks pulled down below their nose or chin. The requirement is not easy to enforce on remote hills and trails. But errant hikers should beware. Some were fined in 2020 when undercover officers swooped on those without masks. And on Saturday a runner reported she was fined HK$5000 just for briefly removing her mask after wearing it for a near 10km run. There is a need for common sense. Many hiking trails have become crowded. Even before the new rule, I tended to put my mask on when other hikers were nearby. This was more out of respect for them than to protect myself. Some looked offended, though, as if I thought they might have the virus! But it is still possible to hike for long periods without seeing another soul and having to wear a mask at such times seems absurd. ‘Out of oxygen’: Hong Kong medical staff share distressing Covid-19 scenes Safety issues also arise. The World Health Organization says masks should not be worn during vigorous physical activity because of the risk of reducing breathing capacity. There are studies that suggest wearing a mask makes little difference, at least if you are young and healthy. Some authorities, however, advise people with respiratory or heart conditions to seek medical advice before exercising in a mask. The pandemic has been devastating for amateur and professional athletes alike. Training centres have closed and competitions cancelled. Hong Kong’s football and rugby leagues have been scrapped. Some teams have resorted to Zoom sessions in a bid to keep their members fit. Athletes are leaving the city in order to train properly. This is in contrast to other parts of the world where ways have been found to keep competitive sports alive. Such concerns may seem trivial at a time when Hong Kong is fighting to save lives. Clearly there needs to be a community effort to limit the death toll. Rules must be followed, even if they seem oppressive or absurd. But the importance of sport should not be overlooked even at a time of emergency. Exercise is essential for the community’s physical and mental well-being. Allowances must be made for it if stricter rules are introduced. Otherwise the city may face a different kind of health crisis in the future.