GROUP MEDICINE Runners marking the first anniversary of the Westport parkrun back in 2014.
I just read an article about a guy you’ll never hear about unless you Google him. And even if you do, half a dozen other blokes with the same name will pop up ahead of him.
Steve Connelly is an ordinary Australian man who, back in 2018, blacked out in the middle of a conversation with his wife. No, he didn’t tune out like some inconsiderate husbands, he lost consciousness for ten seconds or so. Steve and his wife were on holidays, so they called their GP back home, who advised them to ring an ambulance.
While in under observation in the hospital, Steve had a further ten episodes before it was discovered that his heart was stopping briefly, and he needed a pacemaker. Immediately Steve’s life changed. For the six weeks after his surgery he couldn’t lift anything heavier than 2 kilograms or raise his arms above his head. He became focused on his health and worried whether he was going to die. His wife worried that he was depressed, so Steve went back to his GP. And here is where the story gets interesting.
Steve’s GP, Dr Jennie Wright, started typing in her computer as he was explaining his symptoms and printed out a prescription. The natural assumption was that the prescription would be for anti-depressants. Instead, the script read ‘parkrun. Quantity: 5km. Dose: once per week. Repeat for five weeks’.
In what has become known in the UK as ‘social prescribing’, where doctors refer patients to non-medical activities or services such as meditation, group exercise or – as discussed in these pages before – time in nature.
For those who haven’t heard of parkrun, it is a free, timed 5km event held every Saturday morning in over 2,000 locations 20 countries around the world. There are over 100 locations around Ireland, including six in Mayo. Participants are free to run or walk at their own pace and be as competitive or as relaxed as they wish to be. After a while, participants are also encouraged to help out as a marshal from time to time to put something back into the event. Oh, and everyone goes for coffee and a bit of a chat afterwards, making it a real social outing.
Dr Wright wrote Steve Connelly’s referral based on medical evidence and her own personal experience, having taken up running herself as a form stress relief. She even offered to join Steve and his wife on their first parkrun to ease their worries.
Interestingly, while the idea might seem almost revolutionary, a recent survey of 3,000 GPs in Australia found that 69 percent of them had already ‘prescribed’ parkrun to their patients, and 87 percent said they would consider doing so in the future.
Last week the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners announced a formal partnership with parkrun, in a bid to encourage more GPs to refer their patients. The UK has had a similar scheme in place since 2018, and almost 75 percent or all practices there have referred patients to parkrun.
The link makes perfect sense; most chronic diseases have modifiable risk factors, with exercise being one of the most significant. On top of that, most chronic physical illnesses have a mental health component to them; being physically limited will tend to effect mood and mental wellbeing as well. The social outlet of parkrun serves to address the mental aspect. Research has shown that having more social connections and a sense of community reduces the risk and severity of mental-health issues.
I don’t know if the Irish College of General Practitioners is looking at the concept of social or parkrun prescriptions. I’d like to think it could happen, or at least that some GPs are doing such things of their own volition. But it shouldn’t take a situation as serious as that which faced Steve Connelly, or a doctor’s instruction, to convince you to join in something that’s both good for you and good fun.
Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.