It’s January, it’s cold outside, and yet this weekend around 200,000 people across the country will brave the freeze and head to their local park for a group 5-kilometre run.
Better known as Parkrun, the initiative started in 2004 as a small running club for a group of friends in Bushy Park, west London, who would jog and then go for coffee. Now it has spread around the world, taking place every weekend in 2,500 locations globally, including 1,236 in the UK.
Today, Parkrun may be a “public health initiative”, its founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt told New Statesman Spotlight over Zoom, but it began as a “selfish endeavour”. Twenty years ago, the 63-year-old was suffering from a sports injury and having a difficult time with his mental health. Running with friends was as much about socialising as it was about exercising again.
“For the first two years, it was never my intention for it to be a global phenomenon or even more than one event,” he said. “I was looking to satisfy some personal things. I’ve been saved by Parkrun many, many times.”
The premise is simple – register once, then turn up at the same place and time every weekend to run or walk a 5km race organised by volunteers. Others join just to cheer people on. Every finishing participant is sent their ranking and time afterwards, adding a sense of purpose and competition. The concept has exploded in popularity due to its simplicity and accessibility.
“I like to call it activity, rather than exercise,” said Sinton-Hewitt. “When you mention the word ‘exercise’, you’re introducing a barrier… It’s everybody’s right to be active and healthy. I believe that we as a country should be facilitating that to the best of our ability.”
For many, not even public parks or swimming pools are an option for keeping fit. England’s council-run leisure facilities are rapidly dwindling – since 2010 400 swimming pools have closed, with the most deprived parts of the country impacted the most. Last year, exclusive polling by Spotlight found that a quarter of local councillors said their leisure centres had closed and more than a third (39 per cent) said parks and recreational services had shut. The average private gym membership in the UK costs roughly £40 per month.
There have been some extremely successful public health campaigns in recent years, to help people get active – Couch to 5K, a free app with a running plan that helps people build up to running 5km, is promoted by both the NHS and government, and has been downloaded more than 6.5 million times since launching in 2016. Parkrun also partnered with the Royal College of GPs on the practice initiative, to raise awareness of Parkrun among NHS GPs and encourage them to “prescribe” the event to their patients.
Social prescribing, which enables doctors to point patients in the direction of community services, should not stop at physical activity, believes Sinton-Hewitt, but should be used to tackle loneliness and mental ill health. “I think there are a million things that GPs could be inviting people to be part of, [for example] reading books in a group format like book clubs,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be running, it could be anything. It’s all about social cohesion.”
Running can be intimidating for those who don’t take part in it, and for those who face participation barriers, such as disabled people and those from minority groups. Despite being a free event, Sinton-Hewitt admits that Parkrun needs to do more to attract people from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to the organisation’s own demographic research, the gender split of its participants is relatively equal, and a quarter of participants are aged 55 and over, but only 10 per cent are from the most deprived areas in the UK. The organisation does not currently have data related to ethnicity.
Sinton-Hewitt said the organisation has developed a health and well-being group, which designs initiatives to encourage a more diverse range of participants. “It’s harder to attract the people who most need Parkrun, because there are stigmas attached to running,” he said. “We have areas in London that are very well represented by minority groups. But there are other parts of the country, Scotland and Ireland [for example], where we have to do more than we are currently doing.”
Parkrun as an organisation came under fire last year when an internal report concluded that the organisation had been run like a “boys’ club” under its former CEO. Sinton-Hewitt said that, alongside replacing the CEO, the organisation has changed its board members and brought in a broader range of people to make decisions. Parkrun hired a diversity, equity and inclusion representative and developed a diversity and inclusion strategy, a key focus of which is accessibility of language.
“We’re not a sports company,” he said. “We definitely see ourselves as a public health initiative. Our strategy doesn’t talk about sports at all, it’s never ever mentioned the word – it’s absolutely about health and well-being.”
With a general election imminent, the next government will be taking on a huge health-related burden – 7.7 million people are currently waiting for NHS treatment, while the Health Foundation predicts that nine million people could be living with serious diseases by 2040. Prevention and lifestyle factors will play a substantial role in helping to reduce those figures, and the government should be partnering with better-equipped organisations to do this, said Sinton-Hewitt.
“Health and wellness need to be high on the government agenda and companies [like Sport England] should be supported to help everybody achieve an active lifestyle,” he said.
Tackling the scourge of cheap, unhealthy food should also be a priority, he added. “Unfortunately, unhealthy food is often the cheapest because of subsidies [for fast-food companies],” he said. For example, conglomerates such as McDonalds received subsidies during the pandemic. “It’s difficult but we need to flip that completely, 180 degrees. I know big business is involved in fast food, but we should be finding a way to support families to eat healthily and prevent additional pressure on the NHS in the future.”
Group exercise has grown in popularity, but it isn’t ground-breaking – isn’t Parkrun essentially just running, I ask him? For Sinton-Hewitt, the community element is “underrated” and is as important as physical movement. Twenty years on, he still goes to Parkrun nearly every week, now at Horsham Park, West Sussex.
“For me, it’s a social engagement that happens at a specific time, every single week, at the same place. It costs the individual practically nothing, [just] a little bit of commitment,” he said. “As someone who suffers mental health issues, and as someone who’s currently injured, [the social element] is an absolutely vital part of what we do.”