A survey of almost 2,000 healthcare professionals has revealed the significant extent to which parkrun is being prescribed to patients in the UK.
parkruns are free 5k events that take place in around 500 parks and open spaces around the UK every Saturday throughout the year, coordinated entirely by local volunteers. They are open to walkers and runners of all ages and abilities, with up to 120,000 people completing the 5k each Saturday and more than 10,000 volunteering.
The survey aimed to find out whether health care professionals are referring patients to parkrun (an example of ‘social prescribing’), why they might do so and how they are signposting people. For those who weren’t referring people to parkrun, the survey also sought to establish what the barriers might be and how these could be overcome.
Almost two thirds of those surveyed (63%) revealed they currently prescribe parkrun in some form, and this number increases to 72% of those surveyed who are registered with parkrun. 88% of those surveyed said that they would consider referring service users to parkrun.
The online questionnaire attracted responses from a wide range of health specialisms. GPs made up 26% of respondents, with 20% registered nurses and 11% physiotherapists. Occupational therapists, pharmacists and dentists also participated.
Social prescription is currently happening in a relatively informal way, with 91% of practitioners who have signposted to parkrun simply suggesting parkrun to patients and service users. 34% write down the name of the local parkrun event, with 28% showing the patient the parkrun website, 7% helping with registration and 8% actually accompanying the patient to the event.
The analysis revealed a wide range of motivations for prescribing parkrun. 93% do so to help improve the fitness of their patients, 78% do so to improve mental wellbeing, 62% to improve quality of life, 56% to increase self-confidence, 52% to improve self-care/self-management and 52% to make friends. Occupational therapists stood out as being relatively more likely to prescribe parkrun to help a patient make friends (68%) and reduce loneliness (50%).
Although the majority are recommending that people run or walk at parkrun, a third of health care professionals, especially nurses and occupational therapists, have suggested volunteering, with 17% suggesting patients spectate, possibly with a view to seeing if they would like to participate in future. This demonstrates an understanding of the varied health benefits that come from taking part in a range of different ways, suited to the needs of the individual patient.
parkrun’s Head of Health and Wellbeing Chrissie Wellington said: “We are really encouraged by the scale of the response and the findings of this research. It shows a broad awareness amongst a range of health care professionals of the health and wellbeing benefits of parkrun that go far beyond physical fitness, and a willingness to refer people to our events as a means of encouraging healthy, active lifestyles and supporting individuals to take greater control of their own health.”
36-year-old Craig Chapman had been homeless for many years before moving into a flat in London 12 months ago. His mental health nurse, who is also a parkrunner, introduced him to Canons Park parkrun.
Craig said: “I have mental health issues, Type 2 diabetes, nerve damage and I was overweight. I couldn’t run for a bus. I was talking to my nurse about things that could help me and she suggested parkrun. I was introduced to the Run Director who was kind and welcoming and the parkrun community was really supportive. I’ve now run eight parkruns and volunteered 28 times.
“I am a new man. I am moving more comfortably, my sugar levels have dropped and my GP has put me on a clinical trial to see if I can come off my mental health medication. I have joined a running club, run 10k races, earned two medals and am walking more than 10,000 steps every day. As a result I am eating healthier and sleeping better.
“I am now settled in my community and am a volunteer manager at a book shop. This simply wouldn’t have been possible without parkrun, which has helped me develop my skills and gain confidence. parkrun has changed my life.”
Dr Simon Tobin, a GP from Southport who has been prescribing parkrun to his patients for more than a year, said: “We know that regular exercise reduces the risk of a heart attack or a stroke by a similar amount as being on a statin tablet or taking a blood pressure pill. When I ask my patients whether they would rather take medication for the rest of their lives or alternatively try improvements to their diets and increasing their exercise, they almost always choose the latter.
“I’ve seen many, many people exercise themselves back to health. It’s a win-win situation for my patients and the NHS. My patients are healthier, happier and on fewer medications, and the NHS saves a fortune on unnecessary drugs and dealing with their side effects.”
Dr Rangan Chatterjee, from BBC One’s Dr in the House, said: “It is becoming more and more common for a patient’s symptoms to be caused by their lifestyle choices. For many of these people it is a change in lifestyle that will address the root cause of the problem and have a lasting impact, rather than a pill that merely suppresses their symptoms.
“At a time when the NHS is under huge pressure – with prescriptions alone costing around £10 billion every year – equipping healthcare professionals to prescribe a lifestyle change rather than medicine is extremely important. Nationwide initiatives such as parkrun that are accessible to everyone, free and socially-focussed have the potential to help people take their first steps to a healthier and happier lifestyle, and in doing so relieve some of the strain on our health service.”
Dr Andrew Boyd, Clinical Priority Lead for Physical Activity and Lifestyle at the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “This survey adds to the evidence base that healthcare professionals are increasingly motivated to signpost patients to opportunities to engage in physical activity and volunteering such as parkrun.
“There is increasing awareness that physical inactivity is a major risk factor for many of the long-term physical and mental health problems GPs and their teams see daily, and parkrun is a fantastic, free and widely available opportunity that is accessible to much of the UK population.
“We encourage primary care teams around the country to find out where their local parkrun is, make contact with them, and consider recommending it to all of their patients; it is the least active in society who will benefit the most from getting involved with parkrun. And of course, have a go yourself – we know many of our colleagues would benefit from getting more active too – it’s important we practice what we preach.”
Additional case studies:
40-year-old Kelly Barton is registered blind and only ran outside for the first time in her life last December, after her GP offered to be her guide runner. She has now completed 40 parkruns and volunteered six times, and is one of 250 Visually Impaired people who has been guided at parkrun events in the UK over the past 18 months.
Kelly said: “It’s really difficult to describe to anyone who can see, just what it feel like to suddenly not have a cane in your hand – the sense of achievement it gives you when you take that leap of faith. It feels really liberating to be moving faster than a walking pace outdoors – it’s a sense of freedom that you don’t often get when you can’t see.”
54-year-old Mark Durston, who has a condition called COPD that shrinks the lungs and prevents them from expanding when breathing, said: “My eldest son participated in parkrun but I was worried I’d look like a fool. That was until last year when my asthma nurse told me that running would help my lungs, and she suggested that parkrun would be the perfect place to start because I could walk or run it.
“It took me five parkruns before I could run the whole way without stopping, and that sense of achievement gave me a huge amount of confidence. Before parkrun I had put on weight, which caused my body to work harder and made my asthma worse, which obviously affected my lungs. I am now a regular at Rushmoor parkrun in Hampshire, I do weights, my wife and I cycle and I have a much better diet – all of which are helping my lungs. I would recommend parkrun to anyone as a springboard to being healthier and happier.”
Dr Ollie Hart is a GP at a practice in Sheffield that was determined to get their patients involved in physical activity. Along with other employees they started a parkrun in a nearby park, which in five years has grown from 70 participants each week to an average of 220.
Dr Hart said: “As a GP I am involved in lots of projects, but establishing Graves parkrun is probably the most impactful thing I’ve done as a doctor. parkrun is heavily promoted within the practice, with lots of patients starting on the NHS Couch to 5k programme and then ‘graduating’ to Graves parkrun.
“Every parkrun is an effective, enduring, community development project that brings people together in a way that promotes physical activity in a fun and social environment. We regularly have around 60 people in the local cafe after each event and it’s a buzzing place.”
Sharon Boland’s physiotherapist recommended parkrun as a form of aerobic exercise when she was being treated for frozen shoulder. She said: “Apparently the oscillation would be good for my shoulder and the endorphins would be better than painkillers, so I went along to parkrun in May 2013. I have been running regularly ever since, including 218 parkruns and five marathons. I regularly volunteer too, including as a guide runner for a visually impaired person. My circle of friends has increased and the unintended consequence is that my geography has improved because I have run 84 different parkruns in six different countries. My weekends revolve around Saturday mornings and I love the lure of discovering another course.”
58-year-old Richard Hurdle was referred by his GP to Slimming World and in turn it was suggested he progress to parkrun. Richard said: “I had no idea how I would cope with a 5k, I expected I would walk most of it and that I would come last. But when I turned up and saw people of all ages, shapes and sizes, including parents pushing buggies and others running with their dogs, it put my mind at ease. As someone who previously got out of breath tying his shoelace, finishing that first 5k felt like conquering Everest.
“Since losing four and a half stone since February, which parkrun has played a major part in, I now have more energy and sleep better at night. Before I was very much a couch potato slumped on the sofa in front of the TV every night. Now I plan exercise into my day, either a gym session or a run around the local park.”
For the 37% of respondents who don’t refer people to parkrun, the most common reasons were that it isn’t appropriate for users of their service (33%), a reason commonly cited by physiotherapists, occupational therapists and nurses. Some GPs felt that they lacked parkrun knowledge (for example where and when events take place and how patients can get involved) and more than one third of GPs also cited a lack of time during consultations.
parkrun has recently produced a ‘health and wellbeing flier’ for 5k and junior parkrun events, reflecting the suggestions put forward in the survey. This flier can be disseminated online or in hard copy and explains what parkrun is, how to get involved and the many benefits.
Chrissie Wellington continued: “Not only do we now have insight into how and why healthcare professionals recommend parkrun, we also have a much clearer picture of what the barriers might be, and can continue to collaborate with organisations at the national and local level to scale up the social prescribing of parkrun. In time we also want to support research that evaluates the outcomes and impact, demonstrating the effectiveness of such interventions on health and wellbeing and informing the development of policy and practice.”
Between 30 August and 28 September 2017 parkrun ran an online survey of healthcare professionals. 1,868 people responded.
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