Sociological musings on running, physical activity and commissioned research

By Emmanuelle Tulle, Glasgow Caledonian University

A few years ago I was invited by the editor of a specialist Dutch journal to reflect on the relationship between running and happiness.  This followed research I conducted on the phenomenology of ageing embodiment among runners.  I noticed that on the whole they were a content lot (although their spouses weren’t all necessary on the same page).  The mere fact that they still ran into their 50s, 60s and 70s was for these athletes a real achievement, not an outcome they had necessarily envisaged when they embarked on their athletic endeavours as youngsters or in some cases as adults. Such longevity in the sport was therefore a great source of contentment.  But this didn’t come all by itself: they dedicated a substantial proportion of their daily lives to maintaining the bodily capital necessary for such longevity and their running identity.  So it was a time consuming business which required the cooperation of employers in some cases and of spouses.  It also required a fair amount of self-centredness to shut out the inner and external voices that might tell you to hang up your running shoes.  And there were of course injuries and illness.  Running didn’t prevent the onset of potentially life and career limiting conditions – heart disease, Parkinson’s, the failure of various reproductive organs, etc… As to injuries, whether acute or long-term, they needed to be attended to and sometimes they didn’t get better.  Each period of injury brings one face-to-face with the fallibility and fragility of the body.  It was hard won happiness.

So when my colleagues, John McKendrick and James Bowness, and I were commissioned by Strava to investigate a possible link between running and happiness, we were cautious.  Research commissioned by a private organisation can have pitfalls: it can be hard to protect independence and rigour.  Also happiness is such a difficult concept to deal with. All three of us are runners and Strava users so our experiences, both leisure and professional, informed how we negotiated the research questions with Strava and how we designed the questionnaire. Strava is a platform for runners and cyclists.  It tracks all our activities, speed, distance, route, using GPS technology. There is also a mobile app. For instance, I have uploaded Strava to my smartphone and I use that to record my runs. I can also use the App to share my data with others.  I can control who sees my data.  Strava markets itself as providing athletes with social networking opportunities via their App.  We can invite others to share, we can join running groups, or we can give each other kudos for our achievements.  Strava wondered whether it was this facility for creating communities of runners (or cyclists) which would enhance experience and affect well-being – not just running but being part of a community.

To access runners, Strava teamed up with parkrun, the organisation that promotes 5km races open to anyone (elite, regular, occasional or even one time runners) and is held every Saturday morning, almost without fail, in locales that have volunteered to host a parkrun.  Thus our population consisted of runners who had ‘linked’ their Strava and parkrun accounts. Just over 8,150 people responded to the survey.  We weren’t that surprised to find that the majority of respondents were in their 30s and 40s, male and living with others. Nor were we surprised that they identified mostly as middle class. So were they happy? They rated themselves as happy, they scored as happier than the average on the Oxford Scale of Happiness, they reported having positive body image, being happy with their weight and body shape and were in better health than the general population. Aside from the individual element, it also appears that Strava users were already members of clubs and running groups. So in addition to using it to monitor their performance, they also used it to keep in touch with their existing running networks (to sort out runs for instance or to check on each other’s performances). About 100 respondents left qualitative comments and these were tantalising: common among these informants were stories using a conversion narrative, in response to various forms of bodily problems (weight gain, illness, loss of fitness), emphasising the redemptive nature of running.  Most striking for me was the impact of parkrun on the responses.  We were careful to explore which of Strava or parkrun affected reports of health and well-being and we found some interesting gender effects: women seemed to attribute to parkrun a range of benefits: positive impact on body image, contributing to happiness and a good source of motivation to stay fit.  Men were more likely to identify Strava as having a positive impact on body shape and as their source of motivation. Performance monitoring in particular played an important role in this respect. Are parkrun and Strava gender coded?

This type of study begs more questions than it gives answers in many ways. Not the least of which because these concerns are part of a much bigger conversation about physical activity and its relationship to health. I find most public discussions of sport and physical activity in the context of health full of hyperbole and often blinkered to the realities of people’s life conditions.  Who would be against physical activity if it’s so good for health and if it makes you happy?  Seems like a no-brainer.  Why don’t more of us do it? There’s a fair amount of evangelism in the promotion of physical activity. A few of us working in this area are well aware that it’s a bit more complicated than a question of individual motivation. Physical activity has been reconstructed as primarily a health-related behaviour promising healthful longevity.  Thus it has been incorporated into the dominant discourse of health as individual responsibility.  It has become an instrument of regulation, targeting all stages of the lifecourse – no one is excluded from the imperative to use physical activity to transform bodies, biology and minds too, including the old.  Strava might want, rightly, to promote its community-making potential but it is also promotes the quantified self. Thus we can reframe being physically active as a subject position, with the body as a site of power struggles, between the physical activity do-gooders, a remote yet intrusive state exhorting us to do the right thing from a distance whilst removing the means to help ourselves through the politics of austerity, and a population with wildly variable dispositions for investing time and effort as I described earlier in the hope of warding off ill-health and frailty.

Despite our theoretical misgivings about finding and interpreting a relationship between running, community-making and happiness, we got good data with more analysis beckoning.  We also got a fair amount of press attention, so a big tick for public engagement.  But how will we demonstrate impact? That’s the REF 4* question.