MANSFIELD — Physical inactivity and loneliness are both factors shown to negatively impact human health.
One group of Richland County residents is tackling both through Parkrun, a global phenomenon of free, locally-organized 5K events.
Parkrun is an international charity organization made up of volunteer groups that organize 5Ks in public parks across the world. All 5Ks are free and open to people of all ages and abilities.
Mansfield OH Parkrun reached a major milestone Saturday with its 200th event at North Lake Park.
Diana Shealy has been attending Mansfield Parkruns for nearly five years. Shealy used to be an avid runner, but after a season of transition her routine fell to the wayside.
"I kind of got away from it when I moved back home and had my son," she said.
Shealy turned to Parkrun to restart her habit. She said she felt safe going there, bounding down the bike trail with a community of all ages and speeds.
“It’s a really great community of people," she said. "You don’t have to be intimidated because there’s always someone at your level.”
Shealy quickly bonded with another runner, whom she now considers her best friend. She also rebuilt her running practice and is now running half marathons again.
Mansfield's Parkrun chapter was founded five years ago by Steve and Karen Crane, who discovered Parkrun while visiting Steve's native Australia.
Parkruns are ubiquitous in Australia, with a single event garnering hundreds of participants each week. The Cranes were struck by the sense of community at the Parkruns they attended.
"You meet all these people who were so nice and warm and welcoming," Karen recalled. "When we came back, we thought 'We want this where we live.'"
While Parkruns are independently coordinated, the organization does have a few requirements for volunteer chapters.
Before founding a new Parkrun, leaders are required to visit other events to see how they work.
Since there were no Ohio Parkruns at the time, the Cranes visited events in Michigan and Washington D.C.
"It was a pain in the neck to be honest, but we met some amazing people that we're still friends with," Karen said. "We have friends around the world because of Parkrun."
Leaders are also required to raise financial support from the community for purchasing necessary equipment for tracking and timing participants.
The Cranes said the city of Mansfield and Richland County Parks District were immediately on board, providing funding and permission to use the park and B & O bike trail.
Now, a small band of participants convenes at North Lake Park each week to run, jog and walk 3.1 miles together. About 35 people participate each week, but the Mansfield OH Parkrun Facebook page has 750 followers.
Parkruns occur every Saturday, rain or shine, year-round. The event starts at 8 a.m. May through September and at 9 a.m. October through April. Participants must pre-register online before their first Parkrun in order to receive a timed result.
Shealy said she appreciates the timing feature. About an hour after a run, she receives an email from Parkrun with her stats.
“You can track your progress, you can see how much time you’ve shaved off by going every single week," she said.
Mark Abrams, parks director for the city of Mansfield, believes Parkrun has benefitted both the community and parks system.
"It's been a great addition," he said. "There's been good turnout over the last five years. People really seem to enjoy it and it's really taken off."
Parkrun's popularity even paved the way for a new community partnership. The Mansfield Richland County Public Library's bookmobile now comes to North Lake Park every third Saturday in conjunction with the Parkrun crowd.
Parkrun also encourages social meetups following the 5ks in order to build connections between participants.
In Mansfield, Parkrunners regularly head to Relax, It's Just Coffee or have coffee at North Lake Park following the 5k.
"That's where a lot of the magic happens," Karen said.
The Cranes describe Parkrun as "non-competitive" and open to everyone. Some people push strollers or bring along young children, others bring their dogs on a leash.
Some participants have never done the 5k -- they come to volunteer and cheer on others instead.
"You don't have to be a good athlete; you don't even have to walk," Karen said. "It's an incredible cure for loneliness."
Boosting physical and mental health
Health officials now say that loneliness can be just as great a risk factor for premature death as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Social isolation and loneliness have been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, depression and even Alzheimer's disease.
Doctors in the United Kingdom are even writing "social prescriptions" for Parkrun. (Social prescriptions refer to medical professionals referring patients to local, non-clinical services.)
A recent article published in the European Heart Journal called Parkrun "a simple, cost-effective solution" for improving well-being and reducing loneliness.
"Emerging evidence suggests that participating in Parkrun generates health and wellbeing benefits, especially for those who volunteer as well as walk or run," the article stated.
"The potential benefits, when combined with the inclusivity and accessibility of the events, make Parkrun an attractive option for social prescription."
In 2018, Parkrun partnered with the Royal College of General Practitioners to begin promoting local events. Four years later, nearly 1,500 practices across the UK are participating.
Linda Kline, who now serves as co-event director with the Cranes, said people come for multiple reasons. Parkrun can be a training tool, but it's also a chance to meet new people and make friends.
Both Kline and the Cranes say they didn't know any of their Parkrun pals (besides each other) before bringing the event to Mansfield.
"It becomes part of their weekly routine. I think a lot of people come because they know they’re going to see whoever," Kline said. "There’s a couple of gals that come on a regular basis and it’s their time to catch up."
Crane said that if someone is interested in setting up a Parkrun in their community, they should visit a Parkrun somewhere else and try to talk to event director or Parkrun ambassador there.