When the pandemic hit a year ago and life as we know it came to a halt, millions of people around the world mourned the loss of their Saturday morning exercise fix of the parkrun.
But as a new book about the 5k events explains, it’s much more than the running that’s missed. Described as a global phenomenon, a social movement for the common good, and the greatest public health initiative of our time, parkrun has filled a gap in people’s lives. It has created communities, brought companionship to the lonely, solace to the bereaved, and relief from stress for those with mental health problems.
Author and avid parkrunner Eileen Jones (260 runs in 104 different locations) set out to find why parkrun is so widely loved, and so desperately missed. She discussed with the Bishop of Ripon, the Rt Rev Helen-Ann Hartley, whose home parkrun is at Fountains Abbey, the notion that parkrun is a new religion.
She met a fanatical parkrunning family from Huddersfield, the Pattisons, whose son Dexter, when only 10 years old, became the youngest person in the world to complete 250 parkruns. She heard Sheffield-based consultant Dr Rebecca Robinson describe how she set a new women’s USA parkrun record while on holiday in San Francisco.
“I even discovered that some 1,500 GP practices across the UK were happy to prescribe parkrun instead of medication, which meant that the benefits of parkrun must be more than just anecdotal,” says Eileen. “Indeed, there has been a considerable body of academic research to give scientific validity to the parkrun effect, much of it conducted in Yorkshire.”
At Sheffield Hallam University, the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) formed a partnership with the parkrun research board, charged with reporting the data and the statistics which validate the seriousness of parkrun’s mission to change the world. The AWRC was established with investment from the Department of Health and Social Care and the European Regional Development Fund.
Central to this work is Prof Steve Haake, OBE, chair of the parkrun research board and Professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam. He’s also currently chair of the Active Travel Advisory Board for the Sheffield City Region, working with the Active Travel Commissioner, Dame Sarah Storey and programme director Pete Zanzottera on setting up and promoting walking, running and cycling in the region. And he’s done 380 parkruns.
Haake, with another member of the parkrun research board, Dr Helen Quirk, research fellow at Sheffield University, carried out the parkrun Health and Wellbeing Survey, the largest single independent survey in the UK relating to physical activity. It resulted in a massive total of 60,694 survey returns and 11 million answers to 47 questions, and among its findings were that almost two-thirds of respondents with long-term health conditions such as arthritis, depression and anxiety reported improvements in the management of their condition due to parkrun.
“It wasn’t only about the running: just being there was beneficial,” says Eileen. A large percentage of runners or walkers who also volunteered reported improvements in their ability to manage their health condition.
“Overall, a large proportion of all respondents reported that parkrun had a positive impact on health and wellbeing outcomes,” says Haake. “It improved their fitness and sense of personal achievement, their physical health and happiness, and the time they spent outdoors.”
The absence of parkrun for a year was noted by more recent research, and Chrissie Wellington OBE, a four times Ironman world champion and parkrun’s Global Head of Health and Wellbeing said: “We face the prospect of living in a world where being apart becomes normal, and where the risk associated with social interaction and participating in physical activity is deemed to outweigh the benefit. This scenario contradicts what parkrun has demonstrated over many years, which is that people have an innate need to be with one another. To talk, to laugh, to support, to share experiences.
“Through parkrun, we’ve also come to understand the significant health benefits of being physically active, together, in the great outdoors. It boosts our self-esteem and mood, increases sleep quality and energy, builds immunity, reduces the risk of developing many diseases, and promotes quality of life. Every week without parkrun exacts a cost on the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people.”
Runners and walkers tried to fill the gap. Anne Akers, event director at the Woodhouse Moor parkrun in Leeds, and her husband Noel did a 5k run in Calverley Woods every Saturday, where, she was proud to claim, each time she finished first female and second overall.
“I want to parkrun, it’s what I’ve missed the most during these lockdown times. The friendships, the stories, the pure joy of seeing so many familiar faces who I may or may not be able to put a name to, the setting up and taking down of the course, the short walk to the cafe afterwards, and of course the coffee and cake. Oh and the running, mustn’t forget that.”
How parkrun Changed Our Lives by Eileen Jones is published by Gritstone (£9.99)