We all know that exercise is good for your health. Unfortunately, this simple piece of knowledge does little to actually influence what we do in our everyday lives. Many of us are less active than we would like to be – and effective official attempts to improve the situation are few and far between.
But back in 2004, some ordinary runners from Teddington, UK, created a remarkable opportunity to get active. Organising timed runs on Saturday mornings in a public park, they set up “parkrun” – and it has led to many people doing more regular exercise than they had ever done before.
In the 14 years since, more than 2.7m people have taken part at 1300 parkrun locations in 17 different countries. Participants simply register online, print off a bar code, turn up and run, jog or walk 5km at their own pace. Later that day, they receive an official time and ranking by text or email. And all of this happens free of charge, largely sustained by the volunteers who occasionally help out instead of taking part. The unpaid work of these volunteers has been calculated to be worth up to £5m per year.
Here are four reasons why you should consider getting involved.
1. You don’t have to be a proper runner
Many participants don’t even feel comfortable calling themselves runners (despite running every week) because running, and sport more generally, conjures up images of slim, toned, lycra-clad twenty-somethings bounding along the streets without breaking a sweat. Participants at parkrun events come in all shapes and sizes. And contrary to your memories of cross-country running at school, the slower you are, the more encouragement you will receive on your way round the course.
As a result, parkrun seems to attract participants from commonly less active groups such as older adults, women and overweight people. You might not feel comfortable calling yourself a “runner”, but you can still be a “parkrunner”. In a culture where some fat-shaming exists in gyms and other places of exercise, you might find parkrun refreshingly inclusive.
2. People will help you to exercise
Research consistently shows how social capital, a measure of the resources that individuals and groups can access through social connections, is one of the most critical factors contributing to health. At parkun, the whole community of participants benefit from each other’s labour (it costs a lot to pay marshals at a road race) and the valuable advice, support and encouragement they provide as you run round (it costs a lot to pay a personal trainer to provide similar expertise and motivation).
This is crucial to why you should get involved with parkrun. Without the “people component”, you might as well follow a 5km running route in a public park.
3. You will feel connected to your community
Research also suggests that participants enjoy the reciprocity associated with being a volunteer at parkrun and feel a sense of community at the events. This sense can be rare in modern secular life. But social networks have a profound effect on our everyday lives as we rely on each other in so many ways.
Those who live in communities where people don’t trust their neighbours or don’t engage in community events are less active and less healthy. In contrast, parkrun encourages a sense of appreciation for the place that you live and the people in it. Whether it’s through family, friends, colleagues or simply strangers-that-live-nearby, it’s good to be connected.
4. You will feel less worried about your health
With the continuous barrage of disease-related, panic-inducing headlines in the media, it is easy to feel anxious about your health, especially as you reach middle age. Indeed, when so much of our culture focuses on our individuality, it is easy to focus the blame, shame and responsibility for health issues (as well as failures in life in general) on ourselves.
This feels great if you are healthy and successful, but not so great if you are not. Perhaps the brilliance of parkrun lies in its ability to transcend notions of individuality by encouraging people to help each other out, connect with others around them and embrace diversity.
By avoiding monetary transactions, parkrun instead encourages (and necessitates) social transactions which contribute to its culture. It is a culture which makes you feel like you are doing something good for your health – but not doing it alone.