What can we learn about nature, physical activity and health from parkrun?

Gareth Wiltshire, Stephanie Merchant

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter or section

1 Citation (SciVal)


The relationship between nature and health has become an important topic of research interest. There now exists a large literature base contributing to conceptual developments associated with therapeutic landscapes (Hartig et al., 2014; Bell et al., 2015; Thomas, 2015; Merchant, 2017), green space (e.g. parks, woodlands, countryside) (De Vries et al., 2003; Maas et al., 2006) and blue space (e.g. lakes, rivers and coasts) (Coleman and Kearns, 2015; Foley, 2015) which help us understand the interactions between human health and the environment. Interest in these topics has been drawn from diverse literatures spanning the likes of health geography, medical sociology, environmental studies and health psychology to the extent that the evidence base for the impact of nature is considered to be well-established and is being taken seriously as a matter of public health promotion (DEFRA, 2017; Bowler et al., 2010). Less well-established is our understanding of how physical activity can play a complimentary role in facilitating the relationship between nature and health or, indeed, how nature can augment the experience of physical activity and potentially contribute to its maintenance as an important lifestyle practice for health and wellbeing.

While all advances within the literature on nature, physical activity and health are undoubtedly necessary and valuable, it is crucial to take seriously the ways in which our new understandings play out in the ‘real-world’; that is, outside of abstract theorising, experimental conditions and research-specific contexts. An appreciation for concrete, tangible and empirical phenomena within the realm of nature, physical activity and health aligns with the emphasis on translational and impactful research increasingly being embraced across research agendas (Ogilvie et al., 2009). Indeed, the real-world can often expose theoretical explanations to contextual complexities and a ‘messiness’ that otherwise would be missing from idealised accounts about the relationship between nature, physical activity and health. Furthermore, we take particular interest in investigating real-world phenomena in order to offer meaningful examples of how complex ideas can manifest in mundane, everyday practices which can be communicated with policy-makers and publics as well as within research communities (Mirvis, 2009). In this way, bringing the real-world into focus can bring ideas to life and offer a vision for how nature, physical activity and health can matter for people in their own lived experiences.

With these ambitions in mind, this chapter explores the weekly 5 km running initiative ‘parkrun’ as an opportunity to join up the emerging interest in nature, physical activity and health with an ambition of learning from real-world practices. For readers unfamiliar with parkrun, the chapter will first provide an outline of the key features and characteristics of the initiative before reviewing the published research literature on parkrun that has emerged over the last 5-years. We then draw on the key theoretical and conceptual contributions that we see as pertinent to understanding parkrun in an attempt to illuminate new ways of understanding the initiative and, in turn, explore how parkrun can illuminate new ways of understanding the relationship between nature and human health.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNature and Health
Subtitle of host publicationPhysical Activity in Nature
EditorsEric Brymer, Mike Rogerson, Jo Barton
Place of PublicationAbingdon, U. K.
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781000399134
ISBN (Print)9780367723323
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jul 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Professions(all)
  • Medicine(all)
  • Psychology(all)


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