Photo: Central Park jog from Lachlan Hardy's Flickr Photostream

Every Saturday in countries across the world groups of amateur and less amateur runners get together to run 2 or 5 km around a park.  In 2004, Paul Sinron developed Parkrun, and the first event involved 13 people running in Teddington UK.  Two years later, there are over 98,000 Parkrun events worldwide, involving 1,516,302 runners across 850 parks.  What started as a quest for people to be able to run, for free, with others in a safe and sociable environment had become a global phenomenon.

The BBC ran a story on Parkrun last week following the uproar about Stoke Gifford Parish Council’s plans to charge runners to run in their parks if they were part of organized Parkrun groups.  In it they highlighted stories of positive health outcomes from runners.  Weight loss was highlighted, along with boosts to self-confidence that came from running with, and being supported by a group of like-minded people.  The health benefits for children were also highlighted following the introduction of junior Parkrun events over 2km in 2013. Other claimed health benefits emerged.  For example, an article in the Daily Mail focused on the case of an 11-year-old autistic boy who ‘was unable to show empathy’ but developed the ability to ‘respond to other people’ through taking part in parkrun and becoming part of the parkrun community.  Clearly Parkrun seems to be a useful way of gathering people together to take part in physical activity on a weekly basis in open spaces around the country.

So how come Parkrun has succeeded where others have failed? Years of research into encouraging people to become more physically active have failed to come up with the successful recipe to get us moving more.  Yet Parkrun, which was not set up as a public health intervention, seems to have taken off, bringing with it links to apps and gadgets, a social media presence on facebook, twitter, Flickr etc., and all the technology that can make exercise more ‘interesting’ and trendy. Following on from the apps and gadgets that are supposed to make us more aware of our health (see our previous blogpost on apps) Parkrun actually encompasses a way of putting the rhetoric, and the gadgets, into action.

Whilst the immediate impact of Parkrun is obvious, the reason for this has yet to be explored .  Psychologists have been working on understanding the ingredients of behaviour change techniques (BCTs) for many years, resulting in the development of a taxonomy of BCTs that might be used in psychological interventions to support behaviour change  (Michie et al., 2013).  There is an acknowledgement that ‘one size does not fit all’ and that a technique that might work to increase physical activity in obese individuals might not help non-obese people do the same.  What are interesting elements to look at are the recognized components of behavior change that are at play in the ParkRun phenomenon.

The first component is access (and in particular free access) to an environment that can support change.  This seems to be an obvious, basic and necessary ingredient of success with Parkrun.  There is no barrier to accessing the run and it is totally free. Social support, in the form of friends and strangers getting together to encourage people to run, also seems to be a key ingredient. I have lost count of the number of total strangers who have stopped to chat about the run or to encourage me to keep going when my mind is questioning the sanity of running in the wet when I could be in my warm bed on a Saturday morning. Positive reinforcement, where the reward (praise) very closely follows the emitted behaviour (as B.F. Skinner would expect in any well-designed behaviour-shaping experiment) is also a feature where again, Parkrun volunteers along with other runners wait at the end to encourage those of us who are much slower to get to the end.

Biofeedback, also plays a part, in the form of a runner’s scanned time being made available to them in an easily accessible, publically available list of results for each event.  Added notes such personal bests, also add to the reinforcement that runners are likely to experience. Finally, social comparison processes where your time is amongst that of others in age, gender and running experience categories, is a key ingredient in supporting motivation to return to the event the following week and beat your own time but also that of your next door neighbour, friend, colleague etc. At the same time, where social comparison is not a motivating feature for some, the fact that they are not directly compared (you can choose to view your own time only rather than go to the public results where everyone’s time is published) to others, also makes this a positive, reinforcing experience. Finally, self-efficacy (belief in one’s own ability to perform a task) which has been theorized to be a key ingredient of supporting physical activity, is obviously supported by the very fact that most people will successfully get round the park, carrying a sense of achievement through the finish line.

These are only some of the most obvious psychological processes that appear to be at play in parkrun and which may well contribute to making this event a success.  For now, it all looks promising.  Short term economic opportunism by councils aside, Parkrun has the potential to bring about significant public health gains.   Whether Parkrun succeeds in changing behaviour and improving health in the longer term remains to be seen, but the collective use of public green space for public good has to be a positive development.

About The AuthorKoula Asimakopoulou is a Reader in Health Psychology at Kings College, London.