We each have our own individual stories to tell about how we first got involved in parkrun and the impact that it has had on our lives. We all have different perceptions of what parkrun is, and what it means to us. However, there are two aspects of parkrun that are universally relevant:
The first, which lay at the heart of Paul Sinton-Hewitt’s vision all those years ago, is that it is free, for everyone, forever. The second universal truth is that we want to make the world a healthier and happier place.
So what steps are we taking to achieve these linked and ambitious goals? – making sure that parkrun is for everyone – in other words, how do we ensure it is as accessible as possible for as many people as possible? And what are the ways in which we help promote health and wellbeing at both an individual and population level?
First, the Global Health and Wellbeing Team.
At the most simple and basic level, the focus of parkrun is, and should be, to deliver free, safe, community-led physical activity events every single week. For 10 years our mission was very reactive. It was to have a parkrun in every community that wanted one. Whoever came, came. Whoever didn’t didn’t. Simple.
So, yes, we have always been welcoming, we have always been free, we have always been forever and we have always been for everyone. Seen through this lens, having a team dedicated to health and wellbeing could be deemed unnecessary.
But we have never been an organisation which rests on its laurels – change and innovation lies at the heart of what we do. Experience and evidence showed that, despite our continued growth, there were demographics that were still poorly represented at parkrun, relative to the general population. Moreover, this inequality was also reflected in other sectors across the countries we work in – sport, physical activity, justice and health to name but a few. This meant consciously moving from being a reactive organisation facilitating parkruns wherever people want them, to proactively taking steps to shape that demand and engage those who would benefit most from what we offer.
It wasn’t that we were doing badly, it’s just that we knew we could do so much better.
As we seek to engage those who are less active, and reduce health inequalities, the work of the Health and Wellbeing Team has become absolutely critical to maximising the impact of parkrun.
We are supported by a number of incredible volunteer Ambassadors, including our two UK Health and Wellbeing Ambassadors who input their wealth of expertise and advice to our policies and interventions. I’ll never forget the phone call when both of them, almost in unison, said “what do you think of the concept of twinning GP practices with parkruns?”. It wasn’t a bad idea as it turns out (more on that later)! We also have Ambassadors assisting with the profoundly impactful work we are doing on the custodial estate and the support of dedicated Outreach Ambassadors who stimulate demand, especially in areas of social deprivation.
What is the aim of the Health and Wellbeing Team? Put simply, it is to promote an equality in opportunity for as many people as possible to participate in our events. People like Ash, who lives behind bars. I met Ash during a visit to Wayland parkrun. His words convey, better than I ever could, what parkrun means to him – and the thousands of prisoners like him.
“It’s a chance to feel human. To see the sky properly, some of the landscape and to smell the turf. It really picks me up. It feels amazing”
This is the human side of why we do what we do.
Ultimately, we want to bring parkrun to those who are the least likely to engage, but potentially have the most to gain. It is incumbent, not only on the Health and Wellbeing Team to make this mission a reality.
So how do we do this? The focus on promoting health and wellbeing cuts across everything we do as an organisation.
First, we establish the policy frameworks necessary to guide our work. For example in 2017 we developed what was then called our Participation Strategy. This was followed by a Health and Wellbeing position paper, to make clear what we mean by these important terms. This document is like our North Star and helps guide the work that we do.
In addition to internal papers, we have helped shape national policies on health and wellbeing including inputting directly to the work of the All Party Parliamentary Group on parkrun in the UK, contributing to Government consultations and speaking at events and conferences.
Second, we undertake research and develop insight, led by our Head of Analysis, Mike Graney. His work helps us understand who is registering and who is participating, when and how. We map the trends, the gaps, the challenges and the impacts.
For example, we know that in 2019 about 6% of all UK participants were inactive when they registered. Encouragingly we also know that the number of inactive people, and their share of total participants, is growing year on year.
Data also shows that, globally, 54% of registrants are female, but only 46% of walks and runs globally in 2019 were by women and girls. So why do a higher proportion of women register and never come? Our insight shows that some key barriers are: they think they’re not fit enough, they are fearful of negative comments and they worry about being an outsider and being on their own.
We know that, in 2019 in the UK, over 850,000 parkruns were completed by participants from the most deprived areas of the UK. In percentage terms, 10% of participants come from the most deprived quartile. We also know that we are becoming increasingly successful in encouraging more walkers across the world.
Our work, undertaken with the support of the Communications and IT Teams, resulted in a change to the gender question on the parkrun registration form to include ‘another gender identity’ and ‘prefer not to say’, also nuancing these options to suit the different country contexts.
We also develop insight by commissioning external research, such as the UK and Ireland Health and Wellbeing surveys which received around 70,000 responses and have highlighted the significant mental and physical health impacts that parkrun is having, especially for those who volunteer as well as walk or run. We have developed a strong relationship with the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre in Sheffield, UK, which chairs the parkrun Research Board; a grouping of academics from across the world with expertise in health and wellbeing research.
Through this data and insight we can develop targeted interventions and, vitally, can also be our own harshest critic and hold ourselves to account.
Our content and imagery is being changed to redefine what it looks like and means to be active. Much of this is based, again, on the data and insight I mention above. We have developed resources, rolled out new initiatives such as (not)parkrun and the School of parkrun; and have focused on promoting our message of inclusivity and accessibility through all the channels – such as our blog articles, social media content, Facebook Live interviews and the Free Weekly Timed podcast. Even as we move through a global pandemic, there is still so much we can do to nurture people’s health and wellbeing through our communications; a time when we need, more than ever, reasons to feel supported, positive and inspired.
Fourth, the work of the Health and Wellbeing Team has also led to some important operational changes. For example, the renaming of Tail Runners to Tail Walkers, and making this role compulsory around the world; introducing First Timer Welcome Briefings, and establishing Guides for visually impared participants or British Sign Language signing as volunteer roles in the UK. Our most important operating principles, including those related to promoting accessibility, have been enshrined in our Volunteer Hub, which is publicly available.
Finally, we have developed and implemented targeted interventions or projects – many of them focused on selected groups of people, and, for now, based in our major territories (UK, Ireland and Australia). These range from the fast growing and successful parkrun practice initiative – that came out of the suggestion, a few years ago from our two Health and Wellbeing Ambassadors; the activation of events on the custodial estate; our International Women’s Day celebration in March this year; a targeted project in Australia to engage older people in parkrun as well as those from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communitiesand, in the UK, expanding the number of events in, and participants from, areas of social deprivation. There are parkwalk initiatives across Ireland and Northern Ireland to encourage people to come along and walk at our events; and projects to engage asylum seekers and refugees or those impacted by long term conditions, such as cancer.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as we know that locally there are a range of fantastic initiatives that event teams have been involved with, or even pioneered, at the local level in all of the 22 countries in which we have events.
In developing or implementing our projects we go through a careful decision making process, which puts impact, sustainability and risk management at the heart.
We simply can’t do it all, and neither should we aim or aspire to – but we can do, and are doing, so much.
It is through the work of the Health and Wellbeing Team, in close collaboration with the rest of the parkrun family and other people and organisations, that we can ensure that parkrun is for people like Ash at Wayland parkrun; it’s for people like you; it’s for your friends, it’s for all members of your family. It really is for everyone.
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