In Polluted Hong Kong, Is It Good to Exercise?

HONG KONG ~ With the exercise boom in full swing, a record number took part in last weekend’s Hong Kong marathon, shrugging off heat, humidity and a soulless course for the good of their health.

But was it? With air pollution soaring, questions are being asked about the benefit of exercising here.

“I don’t want to be seen to be scaremongering, but if somebody asks me, ‘Should I run or not?’ I can’t think of any reason to recommend that somebody runs,” leading medical expert Professor Anthony Hedley said before the race.

“There can’t be any places where a marathon is run in such filthy air.”

The issue, and the effect of smog-filled skies on Hong Kong’s image, threaten serious repercussions next year when the city’s hosting of Olympic equestrian events will place it firmly in the international spotlight.

“Given the efforts that Beijing is going to to keep its air as clean as it can, it would be interesting if Hong Kong ended up looking comparatively bad in terms of its pollution,” said Steve White, managing editor of Action Asia magazine.

“It could transpire that the pollution is far worse in Hong Kong than it looks in Beijing.

“The horses are under quite a lot of stress too – you can imagine if there’s a death of a horse, the animal rights people will be all over it the next day.”

Some 6,000 of the 43,956 entrants needed medical treatment after Sunday’s race and one was in critical condition. Last year, the death of a 53-year-old man was blamed on high heat and pollution.

Runners were relieved the pollution was rated only medium – still high by international standards – but said poor air quality had affected their preparations.

“I live in Hong Kong so there are days when it’s quite smoggy and I won’t go out to run,” said Harley Bostock, 42.

“I wanted to train at least twice a week but actually I have barely managed once a week because of the pollution,” agreed Philippe Jaouen, 40, who has lived here for 14 years.

“If it’s hot I don’t mind but if it’s polluted, I don’t train.”

Hedley, chair professor of the University of Hong Kong’s department of community medicine, says they have the right idea, arguing that exercising in polluted air increases the risk of heart problems.

“There are undoubted important benefits from taking regular exercise but I would say that the levels of air pollutants in Hong Kong are such that the net effect could be negative,” he warned.

“I’m trying to be cautious here but I think there’s a major problem.”

Reports suggest athletes are turning up their noses at the chemical soup produced by coal-fired power stations, factories across the Chinese border and heavy traffic, all churning among Hong Kong’s labyrinth of concrete high-rises.

Top distance runner Mark Williams moved to New Zealand last year to flee the smog, while triathlete couple Gary and Gia Mandy are leaving for South Africa, according to media accounts.

“I have heard of people leaving and I know people that have left,” said Kirk Sabean, one of Hong Kong’s most successful runners who refused to enter the full marathon.

“I definitely wouldn’t enter that just because of all the nightmares I have heard,” he said.

“I know a couple of athletes that took a long time to recover, more than you would have thought. They had infections, sore throats, run-down systems – it seemed a little bit odd.”

The problem, like the pungent air, has hit all areas of life in Hong Kong but sports enthusiasts are among the worst affected. Now athletes are fighting back with a Run for Clean Air charity race, planned for June.

“I was appalled at how bad the air quality was,” said organizer Li Suetfei, who was brought up here but left in the early 1990s before returning recently.

“It’s so different from how I remember it as a kid.”

Air quality is not easily improved but many say the government, which is unelected, controlled by Beijing and seen as strongly influenced by big business, is not doing enough.

“The Hong Kong air pollution problem is not really well dealt with by the government,” said Greenpeace China campaigner Frances Yeung, urging it to clean up local power stations.

But the environmental protection department insisted Hong Kong was “in general” safe for athletes.

“Hong Kong’s environment is in general suitable for outdoor exercises,” said a brief statement sent in response to questions.

The department declined to comment on whether special arrangements would be made for the Olympics as in Beijing, where heavy industry is being moved away and factories will be shut down for the Games.

However at least one expert believes that despite the murky air, Hong Kong’s seven million residents should take a deep breath and get on with it.

“Don’t get me wrong, pollution is the biggest problem Hong Kong has got but should we stop exercising? Not in my view,” said Duncan MacFarlane, a doctor with the University of Hong Kong’s institute of human performance.

“To me the benefits outweigh the dangers.”

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