Participants in the study said that volunteering at parkrun, being outside and taking part in community activity can be beneficial to their mental health.

The impact of parkrun on mental health extends far beyond physical activity and has the potential to support people outside of traditional mental health services, according to new research conducted by Staffordshire University.

The research coincides with the launch of an online community aimed at encouraging more people with mental health difficulties to participate at parkrun.

People with mental health difficulties are among the most socially excluded people in the UK, and social exclusion is associated with poorer physical and psychological health. They are also more likely to have a poor diet, smoke, drink alcohol or be overweight.

The study, which involved parkrunners who identified as having experienced mental health difficulties, concluded that volunteering, being outside and participating in a community activity can be beneficial.

Participants reported that parkrun gives them a sense of identity – being part of the ‘parkrun community’ and reducing the stigma associated with mental health difficulties. Each participant in the research reported that parkrun was beneficial to their mental health.

The research reveals that parkrun increases confidence, helps to reduce isolation, depression, anxiety and stress, and gives participants space to think. Volunteering opportunities at parkrun increase inclusivity as people who do not want to walk or run, or are unable to, can participate by volunteering.

Photo: Paul Stillman

The benefits of exercise on mental health have long been acknowledged, however this new research identifies three key themes:
– ‘sense of achievement’ referring to feelings of accomplishment;
– ‘connecting with others’ referring to a sense of belonging and community;
– ‘it’s for everyone’ referring to an equitable, welcoming and non-threatening environment.

Sense of achievement

Participants reported a sense of achievement through participation leading to improved mood and self confidence. The flexibility of parkrun – which can be for whatever purpose an individual chooses – means goals include simply attending, getting faster, visiting different parkrun venues and regular participation.

In addition to achieving at parkrun, it generates a sense of self confidence to achieve in other areas of life.

Connecting with others

Participants described a strong sense of community and shared experience with other parkrunners, helping people to feel acknowledged and valued.

There was a sense that parkrunners genuinely invest in and care about each other, and support others as they have been supported, leading to improved self-esteem and sense of worth.

It’s for everyone

Participants found parkrun inclusive and welcoming in a safe and familiar environment. The 5k distance was considered manageable, and the fact it is free, nationwide and doesn’t require specialist clothing or equipment demonstrates its accessibility.

Participants reported feeling a genuine sense of equality at parkrun regardless of ability.

“This study highlights the importance of community and belonging to participants and demonstrates the potential to support people outside of traditional mental health services,” said Paul Morris from Staffordshire University, who co-authored the report. “The sense of community, friendship and camaraderie was more important to participants than physical exercise, suggesting that initiatives emphasising a sense of community and support may be beneficial to mental health and wellbeing.”

Photo: Paul Stillman

What the parkrunners say

54-year-old Kay from Newcastle Upon Tyne said: “Before I started parkrun I was at an all-time low in my life. I now have a spark and buzz that people comment on and, with every run, I’m becoming more confident with myself both mentally and physically.”

43-year-old Katie from Solihull said: “I started parkrun three years ago today. It has changed my life. When I am in a low place I can guarantee going to parkrun I will see someone who can put a smile on my face. I no longer feel on my own and have made so many friends through parkrun.”

70-year-old Doug from Redditch said: “As someone who has suffered episodes of anxiety and depression over the past 30 years, I cannot overstate how much running has helped me. In particular, parkrun has not only helped my mental and physical wellbeing, but has provided a welcoming social environment that you can rely on for support during the darker times.”

43-year-old Sumi from Surrey said: “parkrun is such a positive start of the weekend for me. After all the drudgery of work and stress, it cleanses my soul, helps me reset my body and start afresh. I like the fact that parkrun is not about competition, time, expectation or performance. In a world where there are so many ‘must to do’ lists in the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) it gives me a sense of simply what I am about.

52-year-old Jonathan from Tunbridge Wells said: “I have been a parkrun participant for over three years. Before and during this time I have suffered from severe episodes of depression. parkrun has helped considerably with my recovery as I have gained physical strength, a purpose for exercise and above all a community of kind, supportive and non-judgmental individuals. Involvement in parkrun boosts your own energy, happiness and feelings of self worth.”

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