Building connections between GP practices and local parkrun events could help to improve the health and wellbeing of patients and staff, finds a new study by the University of Warwick.
Researchers say ‘inoculating’ the public against such harmful misinformation has never been more pressing, and they’ve conducted a large international study to assess how much wrong advice surrounding Covid-19 food and eating practices is actually believed.
The ‘parkrun practice’ initiative was launched two years ago by parkrun UK and the Royal College of General Practitioners to encourage GP practices across the UK to link up with local parkrun events.
As part of an ongoing assessment of the initiative, researchers from Warwick Medical School at the University of Warwick have identified the process of developing such connections, the motivations for linking public health with community based asset, the benefits experienced, and some of the key challenges associated with becoming a ‘parkrun practice’.
Some of the findings of their research are published (2 June) in the British Journal of General Practice. 380 GP practices responded to a survey, and 13 also participated in interviews, including some who had not yet registered as a parkrun practice. At the time of the survey there were 780 practices signed up to the initiative, but to date that number stands at over 1500 – around 17% of all practices across the UK.
parkruns are free, weekly five kilometre events for all ages, held in areas of open space across the UK and 21 other countries around the world. Participants can walk, run, jog some or all of the course, or volunteer in one of the many roles. All parkrun events are currently on hold due to the social distancing measures introduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Study co-author Alex Ruani, chief science educator at the HSA and a UCL doctoral researcher, says: “It deeply worries me that potentially harmful dietary practices are being adopted by masses of people based on widespread advice that is erroneous, pulled out of context, or silent about objective health risks. And enough is enough. We must do something about this, sooner rather than later.
“When we accept potentially harmful nutrition information and dietary advice as ‘safe’ and as ‘true’, when we aren’t told about the side-effects or contraindications, and when we change our food choices as a result, our risk of health harm escalates. The danger is that we may not know it until it’s too late and the damage has already been done.”
The NHS Long Term Plan has emphasised the need to expand social prescribing. Lead author of this new study Dr Jo Fleming from Warwick Medical School argues that there are benefits for both staff and patients of GP practices becoming linked to local parkrun events, compared to other social prescribing initiatives.
Dr Fleming said: “In the past, patients may have been referred to activities like 12-week gym sessions that a GP can probably check to confirm that they attended. But then what happens to patients after those 12 weeks? Some social prescribing is only short-term or funded so after that it comes to an end. parkrun is ongoing so patients can keep going without fear of it coming to an end.
“Getting people more physically active is going to improve their health in lots of different areas – cardiovascular, mental health, even the sense of community in going to parkrun, particularly for people who might be lonely or benefit from social activities.
At the same time of course, it’s important to remember that it might not be for everyone. But because it’s a low-cost, low-level initiative, its availability is potentially a good thing.”
While most practices were engaging with the initiative successfully, the survey identified that 44% of practices had experienced some difficulties in implementing activities as part of the initiative, in particular staff engagement and concerns about the time involved, both in terms of within a consultation or time just with the everyday running of the initiative.
Engagement in the initiative varied among practices. It could be as little as a poster in their waiting room or on TV screens, or handing over a leaflet in a consultation. Some practices went much further, such as volunteer takeovers in which staff took on all the volunteer roles in a parkrun event.
Dr Fleming added: “The key conclusion is that practices are engaging with the initiative, and that it has had a benefit for staff and patients, but there are some challenges that need to be addressed in order to have continued success in the future uptake of the initiative. Engagement of the whole practice is a key one, often you would get just one champion within the practice who would want them to become a parkrun practice.
One of the things that wasn’t quite understood initially is that it wasn’t just the GPs and the nurses that were going to promote it. Support staff could go along and signpost to events too. There is evidence to show that role modelling from health professionals can encourage patients to get involved.
“The main reason for becoming part of the initiative was improving the health and wellbeing of their patients. Secondary to that, improving the health and wellbeing of their practice staff.”
Chrissie Wellington OBE, Global Head of Health and Wellbeing for parkrun, and co-author of the paper, said: “The concept of linking GP practices and parkrun events was actually pioneered by local public health professionals and parkrunners themselves, and it simply needed parkrun Head Office to join forces with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) to turn it into a nationwide initiative.
“This project is a great example of how collaboration can take place between the charitable and community physical activity sector, in this case local parkrun events and parkrun UK, and public health, general practice and RCGP with the aim of improving the health and wellbeing of as many people as possible.
We are incredibly proud of what has been achieved in such a short space of time, and look forward to drawing on Dr Fleming’s work to ensure that the initiative goes from strength to strength.”
Professor Mike Holmes, Vice Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Simple lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health. Most GPs and our teams wholly support initiatives such as parkrun, as a diverse, fun and free way of getting our patients active and encouraging them to think about their health and wellbeing.
“During the pandemic, parkrun activities have been suspended but we continue to hear about patients who have taken up running, not only as a way to increase physical health but also for the benefit of their mental wellbeing. Once parkruns are reintroduced, there could be a lot more people keen to join them.
“This study highlights the impact that GPs and our teams can have when recommending parkrun to patients, as well as potential barriers to its uptake. It will prove useful as we support any future role-out of the initiative, once it is back up and running.”
‘Engagement with and delivery of the ‘parkrun practice initiative’ in general practice: a mixed methods study’ is published in British Journal of General Practice, DOI: 10.3399/bjgp20X710453