Helping to make the world happier and healthier

October 28, 2016
By Tom Williams, Chief Operating Officer, parkrun Global 
Helping to make the world happier and healthier
When Paul Sinton-Hewitt timed 13 of his mates as they ran a 5k lap of Bushy Park on 2 October 2004, nobody could have predicted that 12 years later almost two million people would have followed in their footsteps. What is equally remarkable is that 220,000 different people, a total of 1.6 million times, have done what Paul and a few of his other friends did that day – volunteered at parkrun.
parkrun was initially seen as an athletic event that allowed runners of all abilities to gauge their fitness and add another dimension to their training. However, as the years went by we came to realise there’s far greater value in the physical and mental health benefits than there is in terms of becoming a faster runner. We’ve also learnt that volunteering is one of the most life-enhancing things you can do.  
It wasn’t long before we built an extensive library of anecdotes, and we worked with research groups to investigate things such as the impact of running during pregnancy and the benefits of being active in an outdoor environment. This led to more and more research groups wanting to engage with us to further understand their areas of interest, particularly around health and wellbeing.
As parkrun has grown – currently there are almost three million registered parkrunners with another 20,000 registering every week – the demand of managing these research requests has become more and more challenging. Also, despite widespread acceptance of the benefits of physical activity, there’s enormous potential for us to further understand the benefits of large-scale participation in our free-to-enter events. This is not something we have the internal resources to carry out.
Earlier this year we became aware of Professor Steve Haake and the great work that he and his team at Sheffield Hallam University were doing to launch the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) at the Olympic Legacy Park in Sheffield. Steve is an incredibly passionate parkrunner with 237 parkruns to his name, and he has also incorporated a junior parkrun course being included within the landscape architect’s designs for the Olympic Legacy Park.
Following extensive meetings with Steve and his team, we were delighted to agree a partnership whereby AWRC will manage incoming research requests on behalf of parkrun, proactively stimulate research projects designed to engage the parkrun community, and work alongside us to not only understand the value we contribute globally in terms of health improvement, but also to shape what we do and design interventions that allow us to positively enhance that impact.
Our mission statement is to make the world healthier and happier and we already have excellent insight with regards to who participates in parkrun and why they do so. However, if we are to achieve genuine worldwide impact it is critical that we enhance our understanding of that participation.
For example, we know that less active people are more likely to register in January than more active people, and we also know that less active people are less likely to participate after registration. This is the kind of challenge where the AWRC partnership will be critical in gaining a true understanding of what is happening, and then helping us design successful interventions to reverse those trends.
We used to think parkrun was just a run, then we realised that the life-changing stuff is about friendships, community, and social cohesion. Our messaging has evolved to encourage people to ‘run, jog or walk’ and we now refer to volunteers as participants in the same breath as runners. Our thinking has changed too – from how few volunteers can we get away with at a parkrun to how many volunteers can we engage.
This partnership offers huge potential to develop our understanding of ‘participation’ and, with parkruns now taking place in 1,000 communities around the world, it’s an incredibly exciting time.