Run For Your Life...Or Volunteer

Mag North meets the Sheffield professor who’s proved that volunteering is good for our wellbeing
February 24, 2023

Steve Haake bounds across the field like an overgrown Tigger. He’s a very tall man, with a grown-up absence of hair and even more grown-up beard, but there’s something utterly boyish about his joyous enthusiasm for life, and sport.

Steve is the eminent professor of sports engineering at Sheffield Hallam university; he’s been labelled as one of the 10 most inspirational scientists in the UK, and was awarded the OBE for services to sport and education. He’s produced more than 200 research papers for journals, conferences and the like going back to the early 1990s, has studied the technology of running shoes and footballs, and tennis rackets: “It turns out that understanding the effect of string friction on the generation of spin in tennis is really hard. You think you have all eventualities covered but then you always find something that doesn’t  fit the model.” And he’s recently taken up tap-dancing.

Prof Steve Haake

But this is a Saturday morning, which means parkrun, and for Steve one of the best times of the week. Sure, he’s an accomplished runner, on the fells, in marathons, and he’s done 433 parkruns, but he’s also chair of the parkrun Research Board, and today he’s talking about health and wellbeing, and particularly how volunteering can have a big impact on people’s lives. He’s talking while we run, around the park at Endcliffe in the west of the city, after mingling with the many pink-jacketed volunteers who have dragged an enormous black wheelie bin from behind the café, taken out various bits and pieces of kit, and turned them into a finish funnel, a welcoming feather flag, a start line.

Steve’s understandably very popular here on home territory. His most recent work was a study of the health benefits of volunteering at parkrun, and he had a significant number of people to assess. This particular Saturday, at Bushy Park in London where it all began, there were more than 1300 runners, and 67 volunteers. Here at Endcliffe, with 663 runners, there were 35 volunteers.

Each parkrun has its own core team of volunteers operating within detailed guidelines and supported by parkrun HQ. The core teams store the equipment, know how to set the route out, apply the health and safety regulations, organise the timekeeping and the results processing. Each week they need marshals, barcode scanners, finish token handlers and sorters, tail walkers who make sure no one’s left behind. These might be resting or injured runners, or runners just taking their turn to help, families and friends of runners and, curiously, those who never run but volunteer anyway. This is the group that interests Steve Haake; his research paper focused on the benefits to those who just volunteer rather than runners or walkers who also volunteer. “Those who volunteer exclusively are more likely to do so because they wanted to feel part of a community or to give something back; runners and walkers are more likely to volunteer because of a feeling of obligation.”

What Steve and his colleagues found, after analysing the data, was that large proportions of parkrun participants, identifying as exclusively volunteers, reported improvements to different aspects of their health and wellbeing. “Volunteers were much less likely than runners and walkers (who volunteer) to be motivated by a feeling of obligation or moral duty, but equally likely to volunteer to help people or feel part of a community,” he says. “Volunteers were more likely to report improvements from volunteering than runners and walkers who volunteer for impacts relating to connections with others; examples were feeling part of a community, meeting new people and spending time with family.”

While improving mental and physical health was ranked low as a motive for volunteers, over half reported improvements due to volunteering at parkrun to mental health, and a quarter to physical health. “The data shows that volunteering at parkrun without participating as a runner or walker can deliver some of the components of the Five Ways to Wellbeing advocated by the NHS. The characteristics of parkrun (free, regular, local, accessible and optional) make it a viable social prescribing offer and can be used as a model for other community events seeking to attract volunteers and do the same.”

Discussing this while running rather slowly by Steve’s standards, we were overtaken by a young woman who said that she was doing her third ever parkrun. She had three children, she’d not run since her schooldays. “And how do you feel afterwards?” Steve asked her. “Amazing,” she gasped. “Once you get to ten, you’ll be hooked,” said Steve. Her reply: “Oh, I’m hooked already.”

But then Steve knows that the benefits for taking part, as a walker or a runner, are beyond doubt. Two years ago saw the publication of what he calls “the big one”, the results of a survey of 60,000 people who were asked 47 questions. “We ended up with 11 million pieces of information and an additional 600,000 words from the free-text comments.” The outcome was scientific proof of what many of us feel every Saturday: parkrun is good for you. “Around 9 out of 10 of those who were previously inactive reported increases to their physical activity and similar proportions reported improvements to their physical health and fitness. This proportion  increased further for those from socioeconomically deprived areas. The results show that parkrun and similar initiatives can introduce large numbers of people from diverse backgrounds to recreational physical activity and impact positively on a high proportion of them.”

Steve’s also the author of the book, Advantage Play, which is definitely more about the technology than the people in sport. It’s a story spanning 2,700 years of sporting evolution in technological breakthroughs, from the ancient Greek starting line, though the vulcanization of rubber, to marginal gains that have transformed the relationship of technology, sport and culture. It goes deep into the world’s best sports research centres that design, build and test the equipment we take for granted: from javelins, golf clubs, footballs, tennis rackets and swimsuits to goal-line technology, activity trackers, prosthetics and barefoot running shoes.

But running round this Sheffield park with him is evidence that the people in – and around – sport are what matter. He high-fives regular volunteers, cheers the faster runners lapping us, and then heads over to congratulate a group of women – all dressed in red – from the University of Sheffield Islamic Circle who were running 5k to raise money to build a water well in Shaam, Syria. He’ll be back at Endcliffe next week, when the Move charity holds its monthly 5k Your Way event as part of the parkrun, a supportive community that inspires and empowers people impacted by cancer to live an active and fulfilling lifestyle. To repeat a phrase he uses often: What’s not to like?

The health benefits of volunteering at a free, weekly, 5 km event in the UK: a cross-sectional study of volunteers at parkrun.

Eileen Jones is the inspirational author of How parkrun changed our lives, and p is for parkrun. Both published by Gritstone Publishing.