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Why it's vital we get parkrun up and running as soon as possible

Tom Williams, parkrun's global chief operating officer, says allowing outdoor events to return will help tackle inequalities in health and happiness.

13th August 2020

by Tom Williams
global chief operating officer, parkrun

In March this year, the UK went into lockdown as coronavirus (Covid-19) cases rapidly increased and the severity of the pandemic became clear.

All sport and physical activity events, from mass participation to small local gatherings, were stopped with immediate effect, and exercise was limited to within your home or, if outside, no more than once per day and only alongside the people you lived with.

This represented a level of restriction that none of us could have imagined just a few weeks before.

People taking part in a park run before the coronavirus crisis

Over the following weeks, as we began to come to terms with what was happening, it became clear that each of us was experiencing the situation in a very different way.

Some people had more time on their hands, time that could be spent being active with close family members, or getting out running, or cycling. It was great to see people becoming more active, particularly where it was families getting out for a daily walk or play in the park.

Sadly though, for many other people, lockdown meant exclusion from their local community, the removal of their support networks, and huge reductions in physical activity levels.

Fuelled by constant bad news and tightening restrictions prohibiting their ability to meet with other people, many found themselves more isolated and inactive than ever before.

At parkrun, we’ve always seen our events as local support networks, helping people to feel part of their community and giving them the motivation and inspiration to get outside and be active, together.

Right when people needed that the most, as the coronavirus took hold, we closed our events. A profound moment for us all, and, again, something we never imagined would happen.

Over the last five months, it’s become clear that coronavirus and the associated lockdown has impacted disadvantaged communities more than more affluent ones.

Inequalities in physical activity have increased, and whilst social media is full of Strava PBs and Zwift victories, huge numbers of people have become inactive, lonely, and isolated.

As we look forward, it’s clear that outdoor sport and physical activity events have a huge role to play. They bring people together, they give people purpose, they enhance community cohesion, and they get people moving.

It’s become clear that coronavirus and the associated lockdown has impacted disadvantaged communities more than more affluent ones

Tom Williams

parkrun's global chief operating officer

We’re often asked why parkrun is so successful, and our answer is that we believe all human beings have an innate need to be active, social, and outdoors.

We believe that these are fundamental building blocks of health and happiness, and that without any one of them, regardless of steps counted or calories burned, our health deteriorates.

It is critical then, that as we look toward the future of sport and physical activity, we hold on to the human interaction that makes people healthier and happier, and that we continue to remove barriers to participation.

A future where events are more complicated and costly to deliver, and therefore harder to access, will only serve to further increase inequalities in health and happiness. We must strive to make outdoor events as simple, sustainable, and accessible as possible, and we must do everything in our power to engage those most in need.

Importantly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that outdoor environments present far less risk of transmission than indoor settings.

And as autumn approaches, with winter right behind it, understanding that difference, and supporting appropriate interventions, becomes more and more critical.

Not only do outdoor events have the ability to increase people’s activity levels, provide them with focus, structure, and the pride of achievement, but they also have the ability to move people out of indoor environments where the risk of infection is much greater.

The seasonality of coronavirus is not yet fully understood, however as the weather deteriorates and people move indoors, the more we can do to get people active, social, and outdoors, the better.

As part of this process we have recently commissioned a formal review of the evidence regarding the risks of coronavirus transmission in outdoor environments.

If, as we believe to be the case, gathering outdoors is shown to present an incredibly low risk of transmission, then we must do all we can to open up our streets, parks, and open spaces to everyone from mass participation providers to local volunteer groups.

Being active, outdoors, and social, improving our health and happiness, and getting off the couch, has never been so important as it is right now.

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