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Why it is good news that the average finish times at park runs are getting slower

‘Activities like park run not only confer physical benefits, but mental health improvements too’

More than a decade ago, Ireland’s first park run was held at Malahide (on November 10th, 2012). Founded in London in 2004, park runs are free, weekly, community events — and a global phenomenon — with timed 5km and 2km events in parks and open spaces, where participants can run, walk, or volunteer.

Matt Shields is Ireland’s parkrun Health and Wellbeing project manager and an international-standard athletics coach. He told The Irish Times that throughout the island of Ireland there are about 180 weekly events attracting some 15,000 participants. Notwithstanding his elite athletics background — finishing third in the inaugural 1982 Belfast Marathon and clocking 2:19:43 in the 1983 Dublin Marathon — Shields emphasises that parkrun is for everybody: “At parkrun we welcome all ages and all abilities. There are no expectations either; we are an inclusive and non-judgmental community, and parkrun is what you want it to be. You can run, walk, volunteer, or just spectate. Everyone’s welcome, and everyone’s valued.”

Activities like parkrun not only confer physical benefits, but mental health improvements too. For example, in a 2021 study of the mental wellbeing of UK park-run participants, mental health conditions were self-reported in 2.5 per cent of 60,000 respondents, with depression and anxiety especially prevalent. Those with mental health conditions were more motivated than those without to participate in a park run and improve their mental health. Significantly, mental wellbeing scores for those with mental health conditions “were close to the normal range, suggesting that engagement in park run may have had a role in limiting the effect of their illness”.

An interesting development of the park-run phenomenon is the inclusion of walking, with Shields noting that the park walk campaign in Ireland is now in its third year. Describing his experience in England is Dr Simon Tobin, a Southport-based NHS GP who has an unpaid role as a park-run ambassador for health and wellbeing. “Year on year we’ve seen the average finish times at park runs get slower,” Tobin told The Irish Times. “At first glance, this looks disappointing, but I’m thrilled. These figures show that there’s a new group of participants in park run — those who have previously done little or no physical activity.”


It’s exciting to see the park walk at park-run campaign get under way

This is the group, explains Tobin, at greatest risk of mental and physical health problems and where the potential benefits of exercise are greatest. “Walking,” he says, “is perhaps the most underrated form of activity, so it’s exciting to see the park walk at parkrun campaign get under way. Walkers are warmly welcomed at park run and many come along to walk and chat.” Importantly, explains Tobin, parkrun isn’t a race: “It’s simply a way of supporting people to connect with their communities and exercise in green spaces for free.”

Shields is equally enthusiastic: “The opportunity to meet so many wonderful communities all over Ireland and to witness the park-run impact on community health and cohesion has been a privilege,” he says. “We’re always listening, analysing and learning; looking for ways to improve, and although parkwalk is our most recent addition, it won’t be the last.”

Volunteering does this for many people, adds Tobin. “And I’ve seen it transform the lives of many at the margins of our communities, socially isolated, struggling with long-term conditions or dealing with loss.”

And parkrun contributes to the Irish general practice landscape, says Shields, citing the Irish College of General Practitioners’ collaboration with parkrun Ireland, promoting the health and wellbeing of staff and patients. In 2018, the Royal College of General Practitioners and parkrun UK launched a similar scheme, with GP practices encouraged to become certified “parkrun practices”, with health professionals referring patients and carers to park run, especially the least active and those with long-term health conditions. Four years later, 1,600 (20 per cent of all GP practices) have joined.

Regular exercise reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, many cancers and can help people struggling with mental health

Potential park-run participants concerned about overdoing it can be reassured. It is safe — all adult park runs have an automated external defibrillator available — and in 2021 a study of 702 UK parkrun events involving almost 30 million participations concluded that “serious life-threatening and fatal medical encounters associated with parkrun participation are extremely rare ... [underscoring] … the safety and corollary public health value of community running/ walking events as a strategy to promote physical activity.”

Tobin has seen astonishing improvements in the health of park-run patients: “Regular exercise reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, many cancers and can help people struggling with mental health, depression, anxiety, and social isolation.” Tobin also enjoys seeing patients outside the confines of his practice: “I love meeting my patients at our park run. It helps to see them outside the surgery, often with their family, chat about how their run or walk was and connect as two people rather than doctor and patient.”

Tobin reports that parkrun has helped his patients’ blood pressure improve and even reverse their type 2 diabetes (T2D): “My practice of 10,000 patients has helped 121 T2D patients reverse their condition by decreasing both sugar and starchy carbs and increasing physical activity.”

The motto of Shields’s club North Belfast Harriers is “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”. It applies to all areas of life, and park run — whether walking, running, or volunteering — allows its full expression.