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News - 15th September 2021
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A powerful community

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Toni McIntosh is a nurse, a runner and a passionate advocate of parkrun. Here she brings together the research which backs up the long-held anecdotal evidence of the myriad benefits to population health and wellbeing; while introducing the parkrun practice initiative which connects GP surgeries with local events to benefit staff and patients alike.

 

With parkrun beginning to re-emerge from a long hiatus enforced by the covid-19 pandemic, this article acts as a timely reminder of the absolute force for good which parkrun is and how it can help our recovery from the pandemic by bringing communities back together.

 

As a nurse and a runner, I’ve always been passionate about the physical and mental health benefits of physical activity for everyone. As a competitive athlete I’m constantly striving to get the best out of my body,  but in recent years as I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression, I’ve learned to appreciate the importance of exercise to maintain mental wellbeing. With this insight I’ve been excitedly watching the growth of parkrun from its humble beginnings in a London park, into the global phenomenon it is today; and the hugely positive impact it has had on individual and community health.

 

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The health benefits of physical activity are well documented, however participation levels remain stubbornly low with under half of all adults in the UK meeting the World Health Organisation recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week. This suggests that simply providing information and guidelines is insufficient to have an impact on individuals’ behaviour.

 

Rather as healthcare professionals we need to understand individuals’ – and indeed our own – attitudes and barriers to physical activity in order to achieve meaningful behaviour change.  I need no convincing of the huge potential of parkrun to change lives, however I recently carried out a review of the research to identify common challenges related to physical inactivity, and how parkrun can address many of these to promote healthier and more active communities. You can read the full article here.

 

Physical activity has long been recognised as an effective method of managing long-term conditions such as asthma, diabetes and depression, however there is little evidence to suggest traditional exercise referral schemes – which involve structured sessions often for a limited time – lead to long-lasting behaviour change. It has been suggested that community-based interventions which include a social network, may be more effective. It is this ethos of inclusivity which defines parkrun and offers individuals an opportunity to increase their activity levels in a safe and friendly environment.

 

Studies into parkrun report improved physical and mental health, and reduced social isolation amongst walkers, joggers, runners and volunteers, with the notable finding that the greatest benefits are obtained by those who were previously inactive. Moreover, populations normally more difficult to engage in physical activity, including older adults, women, and those with health conditions, are meaningfully represented at parkrun events. The strong emphasis on volunteering allows individuals to be involved when unable to complete 5k, while a growing body of research shows volunteering in itself can confer many psychological and wellbeing benefits.

 

Probably the most powerful feature of parkrun is the community which is fostered at each event; with studies demonstrating the supportive environment, positive atmosphere, and sense of belonging are key facilitators of continued participation. Therefore, while a challenge with traditional exercise referral schemes has been maintaining participation beyond the duration of the programme, parkrun addresses this by providing an opportunity to be active, along with social support to facilitate adherence.

 

In 2018 parkrun UK and the Royal College of General Practitioners launched the ‘parkrun practice’ initiative, where GP practices establish links with their local event; with practice staff encouraged to signpost individuals to parkrun as well as getting involved themselves. The initiative is still in its relative infancy therefore evidence of success is limited; however there are currently over 1500 practices involved, with initial feedback positive. While the initiative is aimed at GP practices, there is scope for healthcare professionals in all settings to engage with parkrun to encourage individuals to increase physical activity, improve health, and manage long-term conditions.

 

According to the UK Chief Medical Officers, “if physical activity were a drug, we would refer to it as a miracle cure, due to the great many illnesses it can prevent and help treat”.

 

parkrun offers a low-cost, community event which has the potential to have a huge positive impact on individuals and communities. Barriers are minimised as it is accessible, free, and requires no costly equipment. Moreover, while only taking place once weekly, it offers an opportunity to develop a social network which may lead to more regular activity throughout the week and reduce loneliness. And never has this been more important than now as we begin our recovery from the covid-19 pandemic.

 

Toni McIntosh

 

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