Boris is right about running – but it’s just the first step to better physical and mental health

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson hit the headlines this week (when doesn’t he?) when he told the nation that he realised he was too fat before he contracted coronavirus and, as a result of his health scare, he has lost a stone by a daily running regime with his dog.

It was his way of kick-starting an anti-obesity campaign for the UK that his two predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron had both attempted in the recent past.  

There is no dout that the UK has an obesity problem: seven out of 10 men in the UK are either overweight or obese and for women the number is six out of 10. But perhaps most shocking is that one in five children are classified as overweight before they are 11 years old.

The UK is the ‘fattest’ nation in Western Europe and its obesity rate is the sixth highest in the industrialised world.

So following the Prime Minister’s lead and going for a daily run is certainly a good idea. Running is a sport that requires minimal investment (a T-shirt, shorts and a pair of running shoes), very little planning and can introduce you to parts of your locale that you have never seen before.

Indeed lockdown has seen a huge increase in the numbers of runners on our streets and in our parks.

More than 858,000 people downloaded the NHS-backed Couch to 5K app between March and the end of June – a 92% increase over the same period in 2019.

But where there has been an obvious decrease is in group running. 

Of course all mass participation running events were cancelled in the immediate aftermath of lockdown and in the first couple of months of lockdown the rules stated that runners were only allowed to run with another member of their household. Which naturally led to an influx of solo runners pacing the pavements and paths of Britain.

Surveys show that the majority of the country would claim to have been pretty happy with this situation though. Statista published data two years ago which showed 55% of runners prefer to go it alone. However these are all runners that also said would sign up for mass participation events.

Pre-lockdown, mass participation running had enjoyed an incredible surge and the brilliant ParkRun would see over 40,000 people take to their local park for a 5k on a Saturday morning, with around 350,000 taking part globally.

While ParkRun in the UK remains on hold, Spartan Races (mass participation obstacle races) have announced four events for 2020 to take place using procedures to mitigate Covid-19 risks, including a reduction in participants by 60 percent and with 50 racers departing every five minutes to allow for social distancing.

The London Marathon, the UK’s premier mass participation running event is still scheduled to take place in October – although organisers will make a final call on this in August.

But the biggest miss of the summer for all athletics fans has, of course, been the Olympics. We would currently be enjoying the first week of Tokyo 2020 were it not for coronavirus.

The 2020 season promised so much for UK athletics too:

A newly-formed National Athletics League looked set to raise the bar, offering athletes high-level club competitions with better formats, more spectators and better coverage. Sadly that has all been put on hold.

As Len Steers, chairman of the NAL, told Athletics Weekly: “Due to social distancing requirements, many proposed Covid secure venues for NAL competition would have insufficient space to accommodate in excess of 400 people.”

“The number of high-level team competitions promoted in this country has declined. Significant international and regional team competitions have also been lost, so the NAL will have a very important role within the domestic calendar.

“The emphasis must now be on promoting event-specific or small-scale open event competitions to meet senior and junior athlete competition demand. In turn, we have asked our member clubs to promote local fixtures.”

So as lockdown continues to ease, athletes have had access to some small, low-profile competitions. Successful pilot events in Trafford, Nuneaton, Hendon, Yate and Hull allowed some an important competition opportunity. 

England Athletics has updated its guidance for competing too, including separating athletes in track events by one lane; disinfecting high jump and pole vault beds after each attempt; raking and forking sandpits rigorously after each jump; and social distancing wherever possible (including during warm-up). 

While the safety of all participants and spectators remains the top priority, the return of both organised athletics events and mass participation running events can not come soon enough for us all at Sportside.

Our goal at Sportside is for people to connect and play – with the connection being almost as important as the playing.

This is because we see physical health and mental health as inextricably intertwined. Lockdown has been a lonely time for so many, and losing weight / battling obesity can be a lonely battle for so many.

Yes, running – as Boris Johnson has advised – will help people lose weight and get fit – but a daily run will only really do 20 percent of the job. The rest of it is to do with living a healthy lifestyle – eating the right things at the right times, sleeping well and remaining stress free.

It is this mental fitness that we at Sportside care about so much and why we are all about making connections with others with an intention to get active.

The build-up to your sporting event – and all the conversation that can take place around it – plus all the post-match review with your playing partners is as much a part of sport as the activity itself. 

It has often been said that the beauty of sport is that it really doesn’t matter. But pretending that it does, really does matter. It’s something to care about. And having a passion for something is key to a healthy mental state.

The Prime Minister’s health secretary Matt Hancock has said that if overweight adults were to lose five pounds it could save the NHS £100 million – but the same savings can be made in mental health too. 

Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. And smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference. 

Do that activity with a friend and start a conversation about it and a whole new chapter of your life could begin.

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