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.

No comments: