Parkrun, Fat People, and Exactly What Not To Do

Nothing to proveIf you’re not familiar with Parkrun, here is how they describe themselves:

From humble beginnings in 2004 with 13 runners at Bushy Park in London, parkrun has grown to become the world’s biggest running event with over 800 volunteer-led events worldwide and more than two million registered runners. Committed to breaking down barriers to participation in regular physical activity, parkrun hosts 5km timed runs on Saturdays and 2km timed runs on Sundays for juniors.

Recently there has been some controversy because the Stoke Gifford Parish Council voted to charge the Parkrun organizers a fee to use Little Stoke Park on Saturdays. Since this happened, I’ve been seeing tons of Parkrun PR pieces. They mean well, but they typically show us exactly what not to do when one is “committed to breaking down barriers to participation in regular physical activity.”

A number of these pieces focus on eradicating fat people as a worthy goal.  The one that has been forwarded to me by well over 100 readers has a video about two guys personal stories, which is fine, then it moves on to state a projection about how many people will be fat by 2030, then says “We can do something about this” and then:


They then list statistics about how many “previously inactive” people participated at parkrun in 2015.

And that’s where this really went wrong.

First of all, if you want to break down barriers to fitness, you don’t start by labeling some bodies as bad, or engaging in appearance-based stereotypes.  Trying to get attention by glomming on to the ridiculous OMGDEATHFATZARECOMINGFORYOU panic builds barriers, it doesn’t break them down.

Their message manages to both stigmatize fat people, and make absolutely no sense. “Fat people” is not synonymous with “inactive people,” nor is “activity” synonymous with “weight loss” or “thinness.” They are suggesting that they are “making a difference” in the number of fat people despite having no idea how many fat people even participated, but rather based on the number of “previously inactive” people who participated in Parkrun. If you’re not sure why they would fail a statistics 101 class, keep in mind that every single one of those previously inactive people (except perhaps the guy in the video) could have been thin.  Or every single once could have been a fat person who is now participating in Parkrun run, but is still fat.

Nobody is obligated to participate in fitness, ever.  It doesn’t matter what size we are, it doesn’t matter what our current “health” status is (by any definition), it doesn’t matter if doing 3 minutes of exercise every other year would make us immortal, nobody is obligated to do it, and those who choose to aren’t any better than those who don’t. If you don’t agree with this, consider how comfortable you would be if people made things that they consider “healthy habits” compulsory – are you prepared to be forced to eat a raw foods vegan diet?  How about being forced to go Paleo? Are you prepared to be forced to do the kind of physical activity that you like the least? Are you ok with some agency tracking your sleep and punishing you if you don’t get 8 hours?  We each get to choose how we define health for ourselves, how we want to prioritize it, and what path we want to take, anything else quickly becomes horrifying.

If people want to make fitness options (whether it’s running or something else) accessible, that’s fine, but not at the expense of singling out, stereotyping, or increasing the social hatred of fat people (whether those people participate or not.) If Parkrun really wants to break down barriers to participation in regular physical activity, then they should actually do that.

It’s reprehensible for them to use the fear and hatred of fat people that exists in our culture as a justification for their existence. “Don’t charge us to run because FAT PEOPLE EXIST!” or “If you charge us to run, it’s your fault that fat people exist” are not logical arguments, and are instead marketing messages created to score cheap points based on stereotypes and prejudice.

If they want to work on accessibility, then they could work on making things accessible geographically, financially, to people of different dis/abilities, to people of all speeds, they could work to break down oppression and marginalization that can exist in these (and in all) spaces including racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and sizeism, which includes not suggesting that the existence of fat people requires the existence of running programs, or that fat people’s choice to participate in fitness or not is anybody’s damn business.

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12 thoughts on “Parkrun, Fat People, and Exactly What Not To Do

  1. I’ve recently begun to participate in Parkrun and am benefiting greatly from the opportunity to move my body in a safe environment. Thankfully, in our country, sizeism isn’t such an issue! I read this article and did notice the strange statements they made. Pity, as Parkrun really is a great way to encourage people to move their bodies which has helped me health-wise. Plus it’s fun. I love going there and seeing people of all shapes and sizes – it makes me feel much more relaxed. Not like a gym!

  2. I have to admit, after having organised outdoor events myself and seen the wear and tear that can be caused by large groups, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the park to consider charging.

    Also I’m fat. So maybe I’m the person they’re running to eradicate?

    1. I don’t see a problem with charging, either. If you get enough people, then the fee can be spread out, and it becomes less burdensome per person, so better advertising means cheaper event. Per person.

      Most people don’t litter, but the more people you have present, the more litter you’ll have, because there is always a percentage of people who will litter, and the ratio of litterers to non-litterers may stay the same, but the actual number of litterers will get bigger, and the mess will spread, especially if there are young, impressionable children and teens there, who will see the litter, and think it’s OK. So, yes, I support charging enough to clean up after the messy people.

      It’s probably a good idea to have at least one port-a-potty along the track (speaking as one who would need it, even if I were a fast runner), as well as the odd water station. Plus first aid.

      Unless the run is on a looped track, so that one station will do for all, these things HAVE to be considered. And they can be done at low cost, with good planning and volunteers, but there is still a cost.

      In my neck of the woods, we have organized “fun runs,” and people do pay to enter them. They’re not weekly, but they do have a fun spirit about them, and lots of mingling and friend-making. They can be very fun, if they are well-organized and run, and WELCOMING. And it’s OK to charge a small fee for that.

  3. I think we should start organizing regular “Parkread” events, where people gather in the lovely setting of peaceful parks and spend an hour or two reading, with the goal to eliminate stupidity.

    After reading this, it seems we truly need events to help with that goal, as people still are not smart enough to grasp the concept of actual cause and effect.

  4. “It’s reprehensible for them to use the fear and hatred of fat people that exists in our culture as a justification for their existence. “Don’t charge us to run because FAT PEOPLE EXIST!” or “If you charge us to run, it’s your fault that fat people exist” are not logical arguments, and are instead marketing messages created to score cheap points based on stereotypes and prejudice.”

    It’s amazing how fatphobia can take something innocuous… glurgy, even… and give it this dark undercurrent. “Parkrun! Join us for an exciting day of family, friends, and wiping fat people off the face of the Earth.” Even creepier when you consider, with millions of participants, there is no possible way they don’t have fat regulars.

    This reminds me of a similar event they had here where a local news station was interviwing regulars who’d run a certain track for five years. Most of the interivews were intercut with pictures of the interviewee running or stretching, but there was this one woman who had the camera mashed into her face for the whole piece; the most you could ever see of her was her shoulders. And I could tell from her double chin and the tips of those shoulders this was because this local athlete so inspiring they wanted tell her story on television was fat and they hoped if they only showed her from the neck up nobody would figure that out. It was so obvious and so creepy, like a headless fatty in reverse… a nothing-but-head fatty.

    1. But, fat athletes ARE inspiring! They inspire fat people to get out there and exercise, even if you don’t lose weight…

      Oh. It’s the “even if you don’t” part that stops them. We can’t let them glorify exercise and activity, if they might simultaneously be “glorifying obesity,” by succeeding while fat.

  5. They lost me at “timed run.”

    “Committed to breaking down barriers to participation in regular physical activity, parkrun hosts 5km timed runs ”

    Ummm, what about slow people? You know walking is JUST as good for you as running, right? In fact, it’s lower impact. You can go just as far, if not further, without exhausting yourself or ruining your knees. It just takes longer.

    Saying something like, “Our volunteers open the even at X time, and close it at Y time, so be sure to arrive in plenty of time for your own speed,” I’d be all for it. After all, look at Ragen, finishing her marathon, because they said it was NOT timed, and she pushed herself through all the way, even after the officials were telling her to jus quit. Not timing it is a good thing.

    OK, so let’s read the rest of it and see if that’s what’s got Ragen upset.

    OH. UGH.

    Yeah, complete logic fail, fat hatred, and there is no way I’d participate in one of those, even if I loved running. I’d just go run somewhere else.

    Treadmills are lovely. They really are. You can even put them outside, and get all the open air, and you can safely listen to music on earphones, without worrying about getting hit by a car, or mugged, or some other accident that comes from not being completely aware of your surroundings while traveling. You can set up two (or more) treadmills next to each other, and have multiple people walking or jogging or running at their own rates, and they can still have conversations with each other. None of this thing where the faster person has to slow down, to keep pace with the slower person, and maintain proximity so they can keep each other company. Yeah, I like treadmills. Treadmills rock! Even the completely non-fancy ones that are just a couple of rollers and a belt, and designed to require no electricity. They’re all good, in my mind. The best part is that if you get too tired, or start to hurt, you can stop IMMEDIATELY, and you don’t have to walk back to your starting point. You can just stop. And a treadmill doesn’t judge you, either.


    Thanks, Ragen, for writing about this. Here’s hoping someone in that organization gives it a read.

  6. Speaking of exactly what not to do, I just found out why an acquaintance of mine quit her job at the Catholic thrift store last year. The new manager decreed that all donated women’s clothing larger than size 12 would henceforth go straight to the landfill. You know, to improve the store’s image. Or clientele. Or something.

    …Turns out when you do that, your revenue drops, so he recently started carrying sizes 14+ again.

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