In Depth

Tom Williams & Dr Simon Tobin: parkrun

parkrun is a collection of socially-focused, community-led 5 km running, walking and volunteering events taking place every Saturday morning in 19 countries across 5 continents. Tom Williams is the chief operations officer for parkrun and Simon Tobin is a GP, based in Southport, who also acts as parkrun ambassador for health and wellbeing. This talk was given at the Public Health Collaboration conference 2018 at the Royal College of General Practitioners in London. The talk is split into two parts, with Tom giving the background, history and scope of parkru, and Simon sharing several motivational stories from people who have benefitted hugely from it.

Tom starts by offering an opinion (echoing that of Mike Weed) on the current physical activity guidelines, suggesting that they may be overly prescriptive and quota-focused, and that this may not be so helpful for people in need of more physical activity. The current guidelines may be overlooking the bigger picture and the context of how being active relates to positive social interaction and general wellbeing.

The very first parkrun event began in Bushy Park, London in 2004, and was originally called the Bushy Park Time Trial. The name ‘parkrun’ came about in 2008 and the events began to be an international affair the year after. parkrun is now the largest provider of free physical activity in the UK and possibly the world, aiming to reach people of all backgrounds, both adults and children, no matter how disadvantaged, across the globe. And it aims to grow much further – having provided approximately 33 million events since 2004, parkrun forecasts that it will have provided around a billion events in 50 countries by its 30th birthday.

To help spread the word, parkrun have partnered up with the Royal College of General Practitioners and various GP surgeries in the UK. Healthcare professionals may therefore suggest parkrun as a form of physical activity for patients.

parkrun stories

It’s all well and good to talk about global impacts and big data, but it’s also important to remember what impact positive lifestyle changes can have at an individual level.

When my results came in I was applauded by the diabetic nurse. Without my local parkrun to inspire and motivate men, my numbers would not be as good as they are and I don’t believe that I would be running – Gary

Simon first shares the story of a type 2 diabetic named Gary who initially, out of love for his so, chose to quit his smoking habit and, with the help of diabetes.co.uk, cut out refined carbs and sugar which helped him to lose weight. These improvements allowed him to start thinking about physical activity, and he accepted an invitation from his brother to join in on a parkrun event. About a year later, Gary has become a parkrun regular. His decisions to quit smoking and improve his diet, along with his new-found enthusiasm for physical activity, have helped him to lose 13 kg, come off his medications and massively improve his health in general.

One of Simon’s own Patients, Eilee, who has struggled with anxiety, depression and alcohol problems, has also benefitted greatly from parkrun. After giving up drinking, she asked Simon for guidance on what further lifestyle changes she could make from there. Starting with parkru, Eileen has massively improved her health and wellbeing, giving her the confidence to enter and complete the Great North Ru, and also to take part in a project helping disadvantaged children in Malawi. She has also come off her antidepressant medication.

Simon says that he has seen the average finish times for different parkrun locations getting slower, and that this makes him happy. This may sound odd at first, but what this means is parkrun is bringing in new participants that are less active and less fit, which is exactly what it is aiming to do.

It’s really difficult to describe to anyone who can see, just what it feels like to suddenly not have a cane in your hand – the sense of achievement it gives you when you do take that leap of faith. It’s such a lovely experience to be running through the park on a Saturday morning, feeling the fresh air hit my face – Kelly

To really bring home the point that anyone can take part in parkrun and become more physically active, Simon shares the story of Kelly, one of his patients, who was born blind. Kelly felt a bit marginalised at her exercise group when they sent the group outside for a jog and left her on her own on an exercise bike, for fear that she would hurt herself jogging. Wonderfully, there is scope to train as a guide for visually impaired runners, as Simon did, and he helped Kelly to start participating in parkrun. Kelly managed to consistently improve her finishing time and eventually entered and finished the London marathon. Kelly’s story goes to show that there is always a way to become more active, no matter the barriers.

While the health benefits of physical activity itself are evident, there is another benefit that parkrun delivers and this is one of social interaction and community. Interestingly, social isolation increases mortality. One parkrun participant, Lucy, took her elderly mother Elizabeth, who resides in a nursing homen, along to a parkrun event to help marshal and cheer the runners on. This soon became an enjoyable weekly activity for Elizabeth, who was eventually made an honorary parkrun marshal. This simple activity has done wonders for Elizabeth’s social life and this story serves as a reminder that simple participation in a social activity can make a huge difference to a person’s wellbeing.

I feel I have found a new life. I can’t change what I have done, but I can try and make amends. Thanks everyone, especially my new family. This is a life saver and I’m only going to improve. It’s all about [personal bests] now. Thank you all again – Alfie

Simon’s last story is about a man named Alfie who was serving time in Haverigg prison. Alfie took part in specially organised prison parkrun events and became an avid participant. What this meant was, when he was released, he had access to a familiar community, and right away began taking part in his local parkrun events. parkrun gave Alfie something to feel a part of and something to work towards at a time whe, no doubt, people usually feel isolated.

To finish, Simon says that he offers his patients a choice between lifelong medication and lifestyle change, explaining that in general, people will opt for positive lifestyle changes. He urges other healthcare professionals to do the samen, perhaps suggesting parkrun or another similar physical and social activity as an option. In addition, he encourages everybody to give parkrun a go and see what they think of it.

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