By Charles Hillman
Recently celebrating its 15th anniversary since inception, parkrun is on the increase on an international scale. Consisting of volunteer-led, free weekly timed 5km runs in local parks, it has the potential to have an impact on the global issue of inactivity. Since the British Royal College of General Practitioners began actively promoting parkrun through the parkrun practices scheme (link: https://r1.dotdigital-pages.com/p/49LX-52M/parkrunpractice), healthcare practitioners could be left asking: ‘is there any evidence that it makes a direct difference to my patient’s health?’. While there is plenty of publicised anecdotal evidence (link: https://blog.parkrun.com/uk/2018/12/10/gp-stories/) of parkrun benefitting health, what does the higher level evidence show?
Physical health benefits
Aside from the obvious opportunity to increase weekly physical activity (PA) by way of running/walking 5km (based on the current average UK completion time of approximately 28:30, theoretically one could expect to complete 19-38% of the UK weekly guideline (link: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/), depending on intensity), parkrun has the potential for much more wide reaching benefits on the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.
When evaluating parkrun’s effect on participant’s overall PA, in general it was found to increase PA after 6 months, though this effect was less marked after 12 months. The increase was most marked in low-active individuals, whose weekly increase in PA was comparable to studied interventions to increase PA. Whilst parkrun will not cause all participant’s weekly PA to meet guideline levels, it is important to reference research showing that even low dose PA can confer a significant health benefit compared to inactivity.[4,5]
With regards to weight loss, beginning running in general is suggested to lead to clinically significant weight loss regardless of sex or participation in other sports. Without controlling for diet, 12 months after starting parkrun, average weight loss was 1.1% on average, with a slightly higher 2.4% in overweight and obese participants in one study, and the majority of participants in another qualitative study reported that parkrun had impacted their weight.
Mental health benefits
PA and leisure engagement in general is linked with mental wellbeing.[9–11] More specific to running, it was found that running can increase life satisfaction, same day arousal and short term valence, with the latter having a larger effect the more experienced the runner is.[12,13]
When examining the studies looking specifically at parkrun and mental health, one found that tension, depression and anger all decreased from before to after the event, as well as improving participants’ self-esteem, stress levels and mood. Another concluded parkrun was beneficial to mental health, by way of increased confidence and self-worth, in addition to reducing isolation, depression, anxiety, stress and giving space to think. Some of these benefits seem to be lasting; Stevinson et al found that happiness and stress reductions associated with parkrun were maintained 12 months after starting parkrun.
Conversely, amongst a study of Australian parkrunners, global wellbeing improvement was limited to the 55-64 years age group, and both life achievement and satisfaction, as well as personal relationships scored lower for male parkrunners than the sample population. Another found that parkrun alone was not associated with increased life satisfaction, rather it was suggested that participation needs to be accompanied with an increase in weekly running mileage to achieve this. However, one study found that participation in parkrun led to running contributing to a larger proportion of the participants’ weekly PA.
Volunteering is becoming more recognised as an important aspect of PA participation, and parkrun offers ample opportunity to do so; from marshalling to the run director. As the ‘full parkrun experience’ involves both volunteering and running, there has not been research to date examining the differing effects on the individual. However in general, PA volunteering is associated with feeling worthwhile and overall mental wellbeing and improved depression symptoms and life satisfaction.
While parkrun may not be the ‘silver bullet’ to cure inactivity and its associated health risks, there is evidence that it can make a real impact on the health of individuals. This is especially significant due to the relatively high re-attendance rate observed,[2,20] meaning more people are more likely to reap those benefits long term. As the demographic of parkrun is ever changing, attracting more previously inactive people each year, perhaps future research will elucidate the full effect that parkrun can have on an inactive person’s health.
Charles Hillman is a fourth-year Manchester medical student, president of the University of Manchester SEMSoc, and an aspiring SEM physician.
1 About. parkun. https://www.parkrun.com/about/ (accessed 22 May 2019).
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