A survey of almost 3,000 Australian-based health professionals has revealed the extent to which patients are being signposted to parkrun events around the country, as an alternative to more ‘traditional’ medication or to complement existing treatment.
Almost 2,000 of those surveyed (69%) revealed they currently prescribe parkrun in a professional capacity, with 87% of those who don’t refer patients to parkrun stating that they would consider doing so in the future.
parkruns are free, socially-focussed community events that take place in 365 parks and open spaces around Australia every Saturday throughout the year, coordinated entirely by volunteers. More than 600,000 people across the country have taken part as walkers, runners and volunteers since the first parkrun event launched in Australia in 2011.
There are opportunities for all members of the community to get involved in their local event, whether by walking or running the 5km course, taking advantage of a wide range of volunteering opportunities available, or simply through spectating and socialising. Most parkruns are centred around a cafe or community meeting place where people are encouraged to get together afterwards for a coffee and a chat.
In addition to understanding whether patients are being referred to parkrun (an example of ‘social prescribing’), the survey sought to find out why they might do so and how they are doing it. For those who aren’t signposting people to parkrun, the survey also aimed to establish what the barriers might be and how these could be overcome.
The survey revealed a wide range of motivations for prescribing parkrun in addition to improving fitness (91%). Improving mental wellbeing (78%), making friends (56%), empowering people to manage their health (53%), improving social connectivity (51%) exposure to nature (47%), increasing self confidence (43%) and reducing loneliness (37%) were among the long list of reasons that for health professionals recommending parkrun to their patients.
Over three quarters (80%) of those surveyed said that they suggested patients walk or jog at parkrun, while 25% recommend parkrun because of the volunteering opportunities and 7% having suggested 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 parkrun in a range of different ways, suited to the needs of the individual patient.
54% of those who don’t currently refer service users to parkrun revealed the main reason is that it isn’t something they had previously considered.
parkrun Australia’s Health and Wellbeing Lead Glen Turner said: “This survey supports strong anecdotal evidence that parkrun is increasingly being used by health professionals as a non-medical referral option that can operate alongside existing treatments to improve the health and wellbeing of patients.
“What’s particularly encouraging is that there is a broad understanding of the wide range of ways people can benefit from parkrun, whether they choose to walk, run, volunteer or simply spectate and socialise. Free, regular access to a social and supportive group environment in open spaces can have far-reaching benefits for many people living with or at risk of developing long-term health conditions.
“Health professionals are a trusted source of advice, and regularly engage with people who are most at risk of developing health conditions and are far more likely to be physically inactive. Referrals to community events such as parkrun therefore have the potential to ease pressure on our health system while meeting the needs of individuals. parkrun’s ultimate aim is to collaborate with organisations locally and nationally to develop practical resources to support health professionals to identify if parkrun may be appropriate for their patients and to start that conversation.”
The online questionnaire attracted responses from a wide range of health specialisms. Registered nurses made up 18% of respondents, with 13% being physiotherapists and 10% being GPs. Psychologists, hospital doctors, occupational therapists, pharmacists, social workers and mental health nurses were among other professions represented strongly in the survey.
Social prescription in Australia is currently happening in a relatively informal way. 55% of those surveyed said they provide details of the parkrun website, with 31% writing down the name of the nearest or most convenient parkrun and 8% revealing they have helped a patient to complete the free online registration form. 12% also revealed they have accompanied a patient to a parkrun event.
The survey follows on from the success of the ‘parkrun Practice’ initiative in the UK, which saw parkrun partner with the Royal College of General Practitioners in 2018 to facilitate closer links between GP practices and their local parkrun event(s). More than 1,200 practices have already registered to become a ‘parkrun Practice’, which represents more than 10% of GP surgeries in the UK. The collaboration provides an extensive online resource kit that any health professional can access to assist with linking patients with their local parkrun.
RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon said GPs were often looking at ways to improve their patient’s health other than by using medication.
“Physical activity is an important part of keeping healthy, and GPs can often prescribe different levels of it to help improve the health of our patients,” he said.
“parkrun is a great example of a way people can get out of the house, meet new people and increase their physical activity. There are a wide range of programs like this in the community, and I recommend people have a look to find the right group for them.”
Practitioner and patient testimonials:
Dr Jennie Wright from Adelaide, who began referring patients to parkrun after getting involved in her local event, said: “What I find great about parkrun personally is that despite being non athletic, I now have access to a community of friendly non-judgmental people and a whole group of friends I would not otherwise have. On the weekends when I don’t have to get to work straight afterwards I enjoy staying back for coffee.
“When I am at work with my GP hat on, I take what opportunities I can to talk with people about their activity levels. If walking or running is what appeals to them, but they haven’t found they have been able to get started, parkrun is certainly one of the options I talk about. I have many grateful patients who love to tell me about how parkrun has changed their lives.
“At first I was a little worried that having patients come to parkrun would rob me of my own enjoyment of the experience. I was worried it would turn parkrun into just another job with people asking me for medical advice. I am happy to say that that has never happened. I enjoy parkrun more than before because the enjoyment and engagement I see on my patients’ faces is very rewarding.”
Steve Connelly, who had a pacemaker inserted in October 2018 after a series of sudden ‘blackouts’, was prescribed five parkruns by his GP to help rebuild his physical strength and confidence.
“My doctor thought parkrun would be ideal for improving my confidence in a safe environment as well as having the benefits of regular exercise with a fun group,” Steve said.
“I had never heard of parkrun so she explained that it was a 5km event on Saturday mornings, you can walk or run, and it wouldn’t matter how fast or slow I was. Because it was clearly explained to me that I was physically able to do a brisk walk and when ready I could jog, the thought of being able to take up a regular 5km with full support from my doctor made me really excited.”
Dr Shriya Gupta from Sydney said: “As a GP seeing patients regularly with physical and mental health issues, I am always looking for ways to encourage them to improve their health and wellbeing. Studies have demonstrated the many benefits of physical activity for a patient’s health, however trying to motivate individuals can often be very difficult, especially when some of these patients are starting from scratch.
“Being a keen parkrunner myself, I have seen the many great things about parkrun – it’s free, it’s a weekly event, it’s run in hundreds of locations around the country, you can walk, run or volunteer and it’s social. It is for these reasons I enthusiastically prescribe patients to parkrun, with many success stories coming from it.”
Associate Professor Gary Kilov from the Launceston Diabetes Clinic said: “Adopting a healthy lifestyle is associated with a multitude of benefits but putting that into practice is a whole other ballgame. Life is busy, complex and demanding of our time, energy and attention and physical activity is jostling for place with everything else filling our busy lives.
“parkrun offers an attractive entry point for those wishing to become more active and socially engaged. The barriers to entry are low, events are free and the environment is welcoming and feelgood. Fellow GPs, prescribe it to your patients and don’t forget to turn up yourselves!”
When 52-year-old Joanna visited her GP last year she had not been 100 days without a migraine in more than 20 years. She was also not a runner.
“During a consultation regarding re-occurring conditions such as regular migraines, high blood pressure and feelings of stress and anxiety my doctor recommended that I consider participating in parkrun,” Joanne said.
“My initial thought was ‘I am not fit enough’ but much to my surprise I actually enjoyed it. parkrun has inspired me to prioritise my health not only through fitness but also by changing my diet to include more fruit and vegetables, less sugar and to drink more water. I am happy to say that my health has improved dramatically. Recently I reached a personal milestone of ‘103 migraine free days’. In 20 years, I have not been able to achieve this with the myriad of prescribed drugs I have been taking.”
Mark Thompson was prescribed parkrun by his GP six years ago as part of his care plan after having quadruple bypass surgery. He recently completed his 250th parkrun.
“I’d never heard of parkrun before and it has changed my whole life for the better. As well as the physical benefits and maintaining an active life, I’ve loved the feeling of achievement each week. The community feel of the the event and meeting new friends is just as rewarding. I’m a big fan and so thankful to my doctors for telling me about parkrun.”
parkrun is styled as one word, lower case.
2,928 completed surveys were submitted between February and May 2019.
The online survey was shared through parkrun’s communication channels. All Public Health Networks and several professional bodies that represent health professionals were also invited to disseminate it to their networks.
For media enquiries please contact Scott Trickett at parkrun Australia on 0408 006 722 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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