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COVID-19: Who’s Afraid to Exercise Outdoors?

“Without our passes we can go to the jetty [and swim]. After all, it’s silly to live only in the plague. Of course a man should fight for the victims. But if he ceases to love anything else, then what’s the point in fighting?”

— Tarrou, The Plague [La Peste]

by Albert Camus (1947)

In countries where lockdown measures allow for some form of outdoor exercise, the initial feeling may be one of relief. So long as social distancing and travel restrictions are obeyed, getting outdoors to expand one’s lungs may be the one thing that keeps people physically and mentally capable to endure what looks to be a very long battle with the novel coronavirus.

However, where government instruction tends to be quite vague (as it is in the UK), a great deal of confusion and backlash can arise with regard to how people interpret what activities are permissible.

In the UK, government regulations (6.2b) are broad and only refer to permissible exercise by examples (FAQ 1) and not by prescription. (Though more recently, it has been reported that Public Health England views the examples as prescriptive.) Indeed at the time of writing this post, some police constabularies note that doing outdoor sports (e.g. surfing, kiting, etc.) is not illegal as long as it is in keeping with self-distancing and travel restrictions.

The aim of this post is to provide a clarification of key points by which current and future discussion might be better equipped to assess what activities are reasonably acceptable.

Debates on permissibility tend to draw on four criteria. The criteria are sometimes applied singly and sometimes jointly, and not always with clear distinction. The criteria:

· legality;

· well-being;

· health and safety;

· solidarity.

Legality (legal permissibility)

Notwithstanding prescriptions of what is permissible, the argument is that as long as an outdoor activity is not named and prohibited, it is fine to do (as long as they are in keeping with self-distancing and travel restrictions).

Pros: The broad legal instruction means that most forms of outdoor sport are legally permissible and allow for a range of activities to promote well-being.

Cons: Whilst the letter of the instruction might be broad, the spirit of the instruction might call for extensive restrictions relating to safety or solidarity (see below). It can also allow too broad a range of interpretation, with people using any activity as a reason to be outside.

Well-being (medical permissibility) It is an accepted truism today that engaging in exercise promotes physical and mental well-being. This wisdom looks to be as old as the human race!

Pros: Limiting the range of permissible activities means limiting well-being and potentially contributing to depression and a weaker immune system. Moreover, by contributing to our health, exercise arguably makes us more capable of helping and engaging with others around us. For a guide to mental health during the pandemic, see here.

Cons: The focus on individual health may be surpassed by a collective effort to be safe (see solidarity).

Health and Safety (medical permissibility)

Many outdoor sports can be demanding and present a risk of injury.

Pros: Getting injured can result in putting more pressure on an already over-burdened healthcare system; and/or it may also require being rescued, which can mean violating self-distancing and putting rescue crews at risk of infection.

Proviso: Most veteran athletes have developed a process of risk-assessment taking into account ability, self-confidence, weather conditions, terrain conditions, and equipment conditions. The general idea here is that most outdoor sports involve a great deal of self-responsibility and accepting the risks of the sport.

Cons: Unless government instruction is specific in naming activities, any activity that poses a risk of injury would be impermissible.

Solidarity (social permissibility)

Professional British surfer Luke Dillon comments: “In theory because surfing is my job I would be able to go out, but it doesn’t feel like the right thing [to do during lockdown].” And he is not alone. There are a lot of outdoor athletes who feel the same way about their respective sports.

Solidarity is the most complicated criterion since it involves at least three components:

· a moral view or sentiment about what is right;

· proscribing an action in accordance with what is right; and

· a judgment that violating the proscription is morally objectionable (e.g. selfish, disrespectful, etc.).

So, for example, one can argue that what is right involves supporting and respecting medical staff and those who might be ill. To go out on the water, on the trail, etc. during lockdown transgresses this respect. Solidarity means recognizing we are all in this together.

Pros: It promotes a sense of the general good and allows one to passively participate in helping out when one might not be able to help out actively through work or volunteering.

Cons: It is not clear why a specific activity ought to be the subject of proscription if there is nothing inherently characteristic of that activity which causes disadvantage or disrespect to medical staff and the ill. The decision to disallow one activity seems arbitrary. Imagine a group of surfers who refrain from surfing out of solidarity and a group of runners who do the same with running. Does the appeal to solidarity then mean that both sports are impermissible?

There seems to be no categorical reason to think that doing a sport mutually excludes showing solidarity for the medical practioners and the ill. Even the safety issue has pros and cons when considering the affects on well-being (per above).

It may be in the end that there are more effective ways to show solidarity. Or, it may be that underlying our intentions to show solidarity are basic moral sentiments like shame and guilt that are what really matter: fear of being shamed (whether justly or not) and fear of feeling guilty for trying to enjoy oneself when others are suffering and sacrificing.

Just to link back to a point about safety: If solidarity arises from the aim to protect medical staff and the healthcare system, then the issue of consistent application of this principle arises. For, it would not just be outdoor exercises that fall under this remit.


Whatever the case, ideally the close outdoor sporting communities might be better served by bearing in mind the four criteria above when attempting to articulate and convince others (both members of their community and the wider public) of their respective views.

Otherwise, conversation might degenerate into an action-reaction thread in which words or emoticons express either agreement or disagreement, and not necessarily understanding.

Where do you stand as an outdoor enthusiast or member of the public? I’d like to hear!

About Me

Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy at the University of Kent. He runs the public philosophy website and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.


I would like to thank the members of the Whitstable (UK) windsurfing community for contributing their ideas and reasons to the debate.

Whitstable Windsurfers at Rhosneigr, Wales (pre-pandemic!). Photo: Paul Lewin


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