Just a normal Saturday morning on Tooting Common: birds tweeting, trees wafting in the summer breeze, dogs scampering around. Suddenly, as the clock strikes nine, the reverie is broken by a storm of runners – first a couple, then the chasing pack of 10, then ever more streaming past – more than 600 in all. A big national race? County Championships? No, just the usual goings on at Parkrun, in a scene replicated hundreds of times over, not only around the country but the world. The social phenomenon that is Parkrun, which began in 2004 in Bushy park, now spans 1,451 different venues, from Russia to Australia, Swaziland to Malaysia. Almost 4.5 million people are signed up, but those running on Saturday had an express purpose: to celebrate the 70th birthday of the NHS.
In a campaign led by Dame Kelly Holmes, Parkrun teamed up with the NHS to put on themed runs across the country, celebrating the momentous milestone. At Tooting, my university athletics club coordinated a huge turnout of runners, not only from university staff and students, but also hospital staff, joining forces with my club, the Herne Hill Harriers, to provide pacers. Blue and white balloons festooned the ‘world’s longest finishing tunnel’ (according to the event’s director, Mark Shotton) as runners, kitted out in snazzy surgical caps, ran, jogged or walked their way three times round the mile loop. There was a real party atmosphere, with NHS staff filling the volunteer roster and spreading the love for the service and all it stands for. All in all, it was an amazing and fitting celebration of a unique institution.
However, I feel that the celebration should be more than just a one way street. As of April 2018, there have been 34,259,260 completed runs, a figure that will climb further as Parkrun continues to expand. This amounts to 166,738,961km, or, alternatively, to the moon and back 433 times. These are incredible numbers, but more incredible is the demographic of those running: a 2013 study of 7,308 Parkrunners found that more than a quarter of those registered initially described themselves as ‘non-runners’, and a further 26% called themselves ‘occasional runners’. Almost half of those ‘non-runners’ were overweight or obese, more than half were female, and 61% were middle-aged or older. In other words, Parkrun has succeeded in reaching those groups who, traditionally, are the hardest to target.
One of the biggest barriers to physical activity is socioeconomic status. Obesity is not equal – for example, over 10% more women in the lowest quintile of income are obese compared to the highest. Gyms are often simply unaffordable for many, and the area in which one lives can easily dictate activity. Would you rather go for a run at night in a leafy town in Surrey, or in Barking, London’s poorest borough? Parkrun, on the other hand, is freely accessible and open to anyone, regardless of income or status.
As Prof Chris Owen of St George’s, University of London explains, UK government recommendations suggest that we should carry out at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity in adulthood and 60 minutes per day in childhood. However, only two-thirds of men and just over half of women, and a fifth of boys and even fewer girls actually reach these recommendations. Levels of physical activity are lower in the UK compared to elsewhere in Europe, and there is no evidence to suggest that they are improving.
In a 2015 Cochrane review of community interventions promoting physical activity, the authors found that “community wide interventions are very difficult to undertake, and it appears that they usually fail to provide a measurable benefit in physical activity for a population”. The supposed 2012 Olympic legacy – that Inspire a Generation message omnipresent throughout the games – failed miserably. In short, schemes to increase activity tend not to work.
In light of this, Prof Owen says: “Government physical activity recommendations provide an intangible goal for many, whereas Parkruns could provide an equitable treatment accessible to all.”
Parkrun could – and indeed for some already does – provide the elusive universal public health intervention to increase physical activity. If it were to be launched by the government today, I am sure it would be lauded as a triumph – indeed, I am surprised Jeremy Hunt hasn’t tried to take credit for it. The NHS, and also society in general, needs Parkrun more than ever, not just to target our waistlines, but also to bring us together in a celebration of our communities. The only major trouble that Parkrun has faced has been with overzealous councils objecting to the use of their parks, and trying to charge runners. Surely the minute cost of repairing a few potholes is far outweighed by the money the NHS could – and does – save in treating obesity, diabetes and hypertension?
The solution, it seems, is simple: nationalise it. I’m only half-joking: by ploughing government money into Parkrun, access to free exercise would be ever more expanded into the groups and communities who are most in need of it. Junior Parkruns could be widened to after-school clubs, and adult Parkrun could even introduce a shorter version for those who find 5k too far. GPs would be able to directly refer patients (as some are already doing), with dedicated staff for helping them to start. It is, surely, the natural big brother to the NHS’s excellent Couch to 5k scheme, and what better setting for graduates of that scheme’s first 5k than the welcoming, all inclusive environment of Parkrun?
Of course, the minute it is politicised, it would become a pawn in the same way the NHS has, but it seems too valuable a resource to not make the most of. So, many happy returns NHS – but equally, thanks very much, Parkrun.