Parkrun: a 5K event making strides in boosting health

By Charles Hillman

Recently celebrating its 15th anniversary since inception,[1] 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,[1] 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.[2] The increase was most marked in low-active individuals, whose weekly increase in PA was comparable to studied interventions to increase PA.[3] 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.[6] 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,[7] and the majority of participants in another qualitative study reported that parkrun had impacted their weight.[8]

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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[7]

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.[16] Another found that parkrun alone was not associated with increased life satisfaction,[17] 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.[18]

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.[1] 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[10] and improved depression symptoms and life satisfaction.[19]

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,[21] 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.

References

1         About. parkun. https://www.parkrun.com/about/ (accessed 22 May 2019).

2         Stevinson C, Hickson M. Changes in physical activity, weight and wellbeing outcomes among attendees of a weekly mass participation event: a prospective 12-month study. J Public Health (Bangkok) Published Online First: 8 October 2018. doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdy178

3         Lane A, Murphy N, Bauman A, et al. Randomized controlled trial to increase physical activity among insufficiently active women following their participation in a mass event. Health Educ J 2010;69:287–96. doi:10.1177/0017896910364890

4         Hupin D, Roche F, Gremeaux V, et al. Even a low-dose of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity reduces mortality by 22% in adults aged ≥60 years: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med2015;49:1262–7. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2014-094306

5         Wen CP, Wai JPM, Tsai MK, et al. Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. Lancet 2011;378:1244–53. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60749-6

6         Kozlovskaia M, Vlahovich N, Rathbone E, et al. A profile of health, lifestyle and training habits of 4720 Australian recreational runners—The case for promoting running for health benefits. Heal Promot J Aust2019;30:172–9. doi:10.1002/hpja.30

7         Stevinson C, Hickson M. Parkrun, activity and health: The public health potential of parkrun. In: 7th International Society for Physical Activity and Health Congress. London, UK: : Journal of Physical Activity 2018. http://hdl.handle.net/10026.1/12653 (accessed 1 Apr 2019).

8         Ozakinci G. Community-based, citizen-led approach to jogging participation: examples from jogscotland and parkrun UK. In: 7th International Society for Physical Activity and Health Congress. London, UK: : Journal of Physical Activity 2018.

9         Sport England. Active lives – Children and young people survey. 2018. https://www.sportengland.org/media/13698/active-lives-children-survey-academic-year-17-18.pdf (accessed 17 Apr 2019).

10       Sport England. Active Lives Adult Survey 17/18 Report. 2019. https://www.sportengland.org/media/13898/active-lives-adult-november-17-18-report.pdf (accessed 2 May 2019).

11       Kuykendall L, Tay L, Ng V. Leisure engagement and subjective well-being: A meta-analysis. Psychol Bull2015;141:364–403. doi:10.1037/a0038508

12       Sato M, Jordan JS, Funk DC. Distance Running Events and Life Satisfaction: A Longitudinal Study. J Sport Manag 2015;29:347–61. doi:10.1123/jsm.2013-0164

13       Bonham T, Pepper G V., Nettle D. The relationships between exercise and affective states: a naturalistic, longitudinal study of recreational runners. PeerJ 2018;6:e4257. doi:10.7717/peerj.4257

14       Rogerson M, Brown DK, Sandercock G, et al. A comparison of four typical green exercise environments and prediction of psychological health outcomes. Perspect. Public Health. 2016;136:171–80. doi:10.1177/1757913915589845

15       Morris P, Scott H. Not just a run in the park: a qualitative exploration of parkrun and mental health. Adv Ment Heal Published Online First: 2018. doi:10.1080/18387357.2018.1509011

16       Grunseit A, Richards J, Merom D. Running on a high: Parkrun and personal well-being. BMC Public Health2018;18:59. doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4620-1

17       Stevens M, Rees T, Polman R. Social identification, exercise participation, and positive exercise experiences: Evidence from parkrun. J Sports Sci 2019;37:221–8. doi:10.1080/02640414.2018.1489360

18       Sharman MJ, Nash M, Cleland V. Health and broader community benefit of parkrun—An exploratory qualitative study. Heal Promot J Aust 2019;30:163–71. doi:10.1002/hpja.182

19       Yeung JWK, Zhang Z, Kim TY. Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: Cumulative effects and forms. BMC Public Health 2017;18:8. doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4561-8

20       Haake S. Parkrun: a new model of physical activity for large populations? Sport Exerc Sci 2018;:8–9.http://shura.shu.ac.uk/24200/ (accessed 1 Apr 2019).

21       parkrun. parkrun UK: 2017 Run Report. 2017;:1–56.

 

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