The economics of running

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Parkrun, a free Saturday morning 5km run popular in Britain, attracts certain types. There are the parents blasting out nursery rhymes from their running buggies. There are the walkers who finish after me but with more of their dignity intact. There are the sprinters with T-shirts boasting “MUD BRUTE RUN 2017”. And there is me, red-faced, pondering the economics.

Exercise tends to be a rich person’s pursuit, but running skews even richer. Combining the Active Lives Survey with ONS data, it seems that in England about half of regular runners are in managerial, administrative and professional occupations, the top socio-economic category. That compares with two in five walkers, and one in three footballers or cyclists.

Running is both a relatively efficient way to burn calories and easy to track. That a chief executive would slot it in between a 4am wake-up and their 5am carrot juice cleanse makes (some) sense. More generally, people with higher socio-economic status are likelier to see exercise as a way to challenge themselves. And the less affluent are more likely to be on their feet at work, sapping energy for other activities.

Over time, Britons are becoming less and less likely to run, or to follow other fitness pursuits. (The pandemic only temporarily reversed that trend.) The drop is most extreme among students, and weakest among manager-types, skewing the sport older and richer.

Parkrun is meant to halt this trend, having received government funding to “level up” access to sports. Organisers are heartened that new joiners have been slower, with average finishing times rising from 22 minutes and 17 seconds in 2005 to more than 32 minutes in 2023. (Though Kerry Papps of the University of Bradford shares that the pandemic seems to have turned off some slower runners, and lowered the fitness of remaining over-25s.)

Parkrun’s extensive data collection on runners has also provided fodder for research. It helped one study find, for example, that unequal access to running spaces is not the sole driver of unequal participation. New Parkrun events opened disproportionately in deprived areas between 2010 and 2019. But since 2013, inequality in participation between the least and most deprived areas has been stubbornly flat.

Another working paper gathers the individual running records of almost 2mn Parkrunners, mostly in the 2010s, and looks at changes within them to find out whether higher local employment rates are associated with people getting faster.

In theory, a hotter economy could raise people’s incomes, making it easier to afford the healthy food or gym membership that contributes to fitness. But it also leaves workaholics with less time to exercise or cook healthy meals, and raises air pollution, making joggers more sluggish.

Combining all Parkrunners together, these various effects cancel out. Overall, there is no clear relationship between employment rates and people’s times. But splitting by age group, one appears. It seems that when the economy is cooler the young get slower, while the old get faster. (For the avoidance of doubt, my personal slowdown earlier this year was not because of weakness in London’s economy, but because of a mistimed breakfast.)

There is something a little weird about the results. A hot economy is supposedly associated with the young getting faster, but not with a higher chance that they turn up to run. (This is measured by correlating the chance someone shows up for a second week in a row with local economic conditions.) A study of Italians also only finds a very small effect of unemployment on the chances of people doing any physical activity.

But it is also possible that with imperfect data and despite their best efforts, the researchers have not managed to strip out all sources of bias. If the sample of park runners is very unrepresentative of the local area, correlating their times with changes in local employment rates will be iffy.

The authors’ preferred theory is that Parkrun times reflect innate fitness, which is affected by what people are doing during their working week. Perhaps work for the young is fitness enhancing, whereas for the old it is more likely to be sedentary.

Much to ponder, then, as I struggle up that blasted hill for a fifth time. And perhaps next time I take part, I could even share some of these nerdy reflections. Something to speed up the other joggers as they try to escape.

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