31 January 2014

Calling occupants...

My brilliant friend Claire did the illustrations for our book. She kindly gave me one of the original sketches as a present. It turned out very differently in the published book (I think the text was a problem for foreign translations) but I secretly prefer this one. Mainly because of the Klaatu connection...

And here's the music to go with it...

30 January 2014

How to Survive a Plague

Forget Dallas Buyers Club - and Matthew McConaughey's astonishing weight loss - for a minute. I haven't seen it yet. It's probably very good. But there's another Oscar-nominated film about HIV/AIDS that everyone should see. I saw it last night at (newly community-owned) Cube Microplex and I'm still thinking about it.

How to Survive a Plague (2012) may sound like a zombie movie, but it's actually an incredibly moving and important documentary about HIV/AIDS activists' tireless efforts during the 80s and 90s to obtain the drugs that would ultimately keep them alive.

The film is pieced together, and brilliantly edited, from footage of activist meetings and demos, and news coverage. I'm ashamed to say that before watching it, I didn't know anything about the influence that ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group) had on the development of the HIV/AIDS treatments that are available today. I'm glad I now know a little more. It's the most stunning example of what citizens can achieve by taking the principles and processes of science into their own hands. Activists used every resource available to them to learn about the drug development process, and to make it better. They took their fight to politicians and pharmaceutical companies and forced them to give them what they needed.

I would encourage everyone to see this film. It's not a feel good film. In parts, it's very difficult to watch. In one demonstration, activists carry the ashes of their loved ones to the White House and cast them on the lawn. Many of the activists died before the drugs that could have saved them became available. But director David France creates a beautiful balance of light and dark, contrasting harrowing hospital and funeral scenes with footage of family birthdays and activists stretching a giant condom over the home of senator Jesse Helms. Most of all, though, it's a story that needs to be told. Watch Dallas Buyers Club but also watch this.

22 January 2014

The parkrun paper

I've always thought someone should write a scientific paper on parkrun. Ever since I attended my first parkrun event at Ashton Court. Now someone has.

parkrun paper in Journal of Public Health
parkrun, the community-managed 5k running event that's been spreading to parks all over the UK, is perfectly set up for a scientific study. You have your participants (runners), your intervention (running) and your data (oodles of it, all neatly saved on the parkrun website). The data bit is what makes it really useful, especially as it's all open access. Unlike on Garmin Connect or Strava, where the data is all locked away behind runners' individual privacy settings, anyone can look up my parkrun stats. Runners' 5k times are posted every Saturday after the event, so it's pretty straightforward to chart progress over the course of, say, a year.

My own observations at the two parkruns in Bristol have led me to wonder: are these events having a genuine impact on people's health and general well-being? Aside from any improvements in fitness, there are the social aspects, the psychological benefits of being outdoors, etc etc. Do these things amount to a better quality of life for all? Or is parkrun only benefiting middle class people who already do enough exercise anyway? Well, the authors of this new paper seem to have had a good stab at addressing some of these questions, although I think it's important not to overstate the results.

In essence, yes, there seem to be genuine health and fitness benefits associated with regular parkrun attendance - particularly for people who might have been a bit out of shape to begin with. (It's worth reading the paper, which is not too technical, if you want the finer details). The results are based on improvements in parkrun participants' 5k times and age-graded scores, combined with answers to some simple questions about the perceived impact of parkrun on their health. I did note, though, that the researchers used each runner's first parkrun as an indicator of their "before" fitness. I wonder whether this overstates the difference between "before" and "after" as I would imagine most people - especially if they have never run in anything resembling a race before - would not go flat out at their first attempt. parkrun happens every week so I'd suggest someone's first run is just about testing the water and finding out if they want to do it again.

Then there's the question about who benefits. The study group is not a random sample of parkrunners - they're people who opted in after reading email newsletters, Twitter alerts, and so on. Arguably not a representative sample, since we don't know whether certain runners are more likely to sign up for a scientific study. For instance, would people who have benefited more from parkrun be more likely to sign up because they are super-interested and keep on top of all their parkrun emails? Still, let's look at the data available. Okay, so women and older people are well-represented, which is great, because other surveys show these groups are less active. However, people of low socioeconomic status are under-represented. The authors suggest two reasons for this: either parkrun doesn't attract people of low socioeconomic status, or it hasn't spread far enough yet, geographically, to reach these groups. (Given that parkruns tend to be based in large areas of green space, there's reason suspect people living in inner city areas can't get to them as easily or don't want to bother.)

I'm absolutely sure parkrun has real benefits for some people and I think those at parkrun HQ have got to be applauded for the concept, especially the community-mindedness, which I love. On the other hand, it's a shame if, as the authors of this study suggest, parkrun is "contributing to increased health inequalities in some areas"... It's a free event. If anything, it should be a means to *addressing* health inequalities. Something to think about. Anyway, I'd certainly be interested to see more research on parkrun and public health, tapping into that wealth of data they have and thinking about some of these problems in more depth.