Research focus

Parkrun promotes physical activity and community spirit

Three studies explore the benefits of Parkrun, a free 5km running event held weekly in parks around the UK that promotes physical activity and community spirit

Three studies explore the benefits of Parkrun, a free 5km running event held weekly in parks around the UK that promotes physical activity and community spirit

A Parkrun in Daventry, Northamptonshire. Picture: Alamy

Learning points

  • Parkrun events, run by volunteers, can benefit people with mental health problems
  • Social capital is key in initiating and maintaining physical activity
  • Parkrun offers an opportunity for physical and social activity

Not just a run in the park: a qualitative exploration of Parkrun and mental health

Parkrun has the potential to support people outside traditional mental health services, says a study exploring the experiences of adults with mental health problems who participate as volunteers or runners.

UK participants were recruited through the Parkrun e-newsletter. Eligibility criteria included experience of mental health problems and attendance at ten or more Parkrun events. Twenty participants aged 28-65 years took part in qualitative interviews.

Mental health benefits

The themes that emerged were: a sense of achievement (goals and accomplishment), it’s for everyone (accessible, familiar, equal and choice), and connecting with others (supportive environment, socialising, and identity and purpose).

All participants reported mental health benefits such as reductions in social isolation, anxiety and depression, as well as increased confidence and opportunities to think and reflect. Further research is recommended to measure the effectiveness of parkrun on mental health, with a focus on engagement and dropout rates.

Exploring the role of social capital in community-based physical activity: qualitative insights from Parkrun

Social capital – the ability of individuals to secure benefits by virtue of membership of social networks – can play a role in improving health outcomes, as shown by this study, which aimed to gain an understanding of parkrun as a potential model for addressing inequalities in physical activity and health.

UK participants were recruited through the Parkrun e-newsletter. Twenty participants aged 27-63 from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds took part in qualitative interviews. Participants had little running experience before joining Parkrun.

The themes identified were:

  • Social capital as access to opportunity, which illustrated how participants were often inspired by existing social ties (such as family and co-workers) to join parkrun.
  • Buy-in to material and affective labour, which explained how participants invested in and benefited from the collective labour of the parkrun community for practical, social and emotional support.
  • Social capital as access to cultural capital, which described how participants developed skills and knowledge related to injury management, performance and health.

The authors recommend that those seeking to improve health outcomes in deprived areas should not focus exclusively on individualistic behaviour change interventions, but also take advantage of social relationships as productive sources of support.

‘More than just a run in the park’: an exploration of parkrun as a shared leisure space

Parkrun can be conceptualised as a place for shared leisure, where people can regularly gather voluntarily and informally for social interaction to encourage citizen involvement and help foster a sense of belonging, says a case study that focused on a Parkrun in Nottingham.

It explored the experiences of participants and the meaning they associated with participation. Objectives were to identify perceived benefits and meaning associated with taking part in a community event. A survey of 235 people and 19 semi-structured interviews were conducted.

Exercise, togetherness, well-being

Most respondents were regular runners, with 19% recreational runners, 17% club and competitive runners, 14% occasional runners and 7% non-runners. Those aged 35-54 accounted for 55%, followed by 30% aged 18-34 and 14% over 55.

The most important aspect of Parkrun was getting exercise. Other aspects were social togetherness, fun and enhanced well-being.

Thematic analysis of interview data identified four themes:

Casual sociability, which related to spontaneous conversations with strangers about running and everyday matters

Accessibility and inclusion, which related to cost, convenience and diversity in terms of gender, age, background and ability

Belonging and community, which related to attachment to the parkrun community

Exercising and competing with others, which related to motivation derived from running with others

Compiled by Caroline McGraw, lecturer in public health at City, University of London


This article is for subscribers only