The genius of Parkrun

Photo some rights reserved by Darren Foreman.

We’ve been told we need to exercise more for years now, but finally it seems to be sinking in. While the stats for the proportion of people who are overweight or obese are still awful and the number of people who get little to no regular exercise are nothing to be proud about, there are more and more organisations catering to growing demand for physical activity.

Alongside teams we’ve worked with at BGV like GoodGym, Run an Empire and The Hard Yard, my favourite example is Parkrun. It’s been going since 2004 but has really started ramping up in the last few years and now operates in 15 countries with over a hundred thousand people all running a timed 5km on a Saturday morning just for fun.

To begin with we collated all results on paper and the finish tokens were washers from the local hardware store! But eventually we ramped up the technology, and so the parkrun registration and barcode result system was born.

It is a genius system — so simple but effective, which could be said of the design of the organisation as a whole. It’s completely reliant on volunteers and every Parkrun around the world has the same basic pattern. This leads to Parkrun tourism with people racing to see how many different runs they can do. I’ve got my eye on the busiest Parkrun in the world which is in North Beach in Durban, South Africa where they had over 2,000 runners last weekend.

I love going along to my local event in Mile End Park in London. There were over 400 people there this weekend and I don’t think that was just because the IAAF World Athletics Championships were taking place round the corner. There’s plenty of room to grow and I think we’ll see more and more organisations catering for the demand from people to get more active.

The GoodGym story

Ivo did an amazing job of telling the story of GoodGym on BBC Radio Four’s Four Thought last night.

I first came across the idea at Social Innovation Camp in 2008 which Ivo mentions in the programme — I remember him doing his final pitch on crutches because he’d injured his knee and using one crutch as a pointer during his presentation. Winning Social Innovation Camp gave him a little bit of external validation which he used to get other people behind the idea. I joined the board and then became a trustee and have followed the journey up to where we are now. There have been plenty of people along the way who’ve said ‘that’ll never work’ but still it keeps on growing.

I think the reason it keeps on growing is the sense of community that people get from being part of it. I was up at the annual GoodGym ‘shindig’ in the Peak District a few weeks back where the branch organisers get together to talk about what they’ve learned and partake in a bit of highly competitive endurance pub quizzing (and running of course). The community is real and authentic and its belief that you can and should do good as you get fit is incredibly strong. I think it’s going to keep on growing and it’s been a wonderful thing to have played a small part in along the way.

Personalised exercise

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a very good programme on BBC Four called The Truth About Exercise presented by Michael Mosley.

Instinctively I guess I knew that different people responded differently to exercise but I hadn’t really looked at the science. One study mentioned in the programme found that in a sample of 1,000 people given the same WHO recommended exercise regime for 20 weeks, 15% had a dramatic improvement in their fitness but 20% showed no real improvement at all (so-called ‘non-responders’). It also seems that there are genetic markers that can predict where you will be on this distribution.

The programme then looked at some of the research that’s going on into High Intensity Training which sounds too good to be true and has led to a few somewhat dramatic headlines. The idea is that you can get many of the same fitness benefits of the WHO recommended regime based on just a few minutes per week of really pushing yourself in full body exercise. What was interesting was that Michael Mosley is in the ‘non-responder’ group but the High Intensity Training did still have a benefit to him — it improved his insulin sensitivity by 24% which in his case (with a history of diabetes in the family) was very important.

It brought me back to my hatred of gyms which was what got me interested in Good Gym in the first place and thinking about how we could radically improve the health of a large percentage of the population. Only about a third of the UK population meet the recommended levels of exercise for a healthy lifestyle and it’s costing the NHS billions of pounds and probably having all kinds of other effects on the economy and society as well.

I think there’s a huge need for tools that make preventative healthcare work. Unfortunately the NHS  (which is really a national ill health service) isn’t set up to build them so I think they’ll have to come from elsewhere. I’d like to see services that can offer advice and motivation to people about exercise on a personalised basis. They could involve some element of genetic propensity to benefit from different types of exercise as well as looking at other lifestyle issues such as your activity levels (the programme singled out sitting down at work as probably the UK’s biggest killer) and devise nutritional and exercise advice that takes into account budget and lifestyle.



 Some rights reserved by Josiah Mackenzie
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