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Mass participation sporting events are often proposed as methods of promoting physical activity and decreasing obesity. Little research has explored who takes part in such events or if participation leads to sustained behaviour change. The Great North Run (GNR), from Newcastle upon Tyne to South Shields (13.1 miles), is the UK’s largest mass participation sporting event.
To describe the characteristics of non-elite runners in the 2008 GNR, and document group-level changes in physical activity and body mass index (BMI) between 20 weeks before (time 1) and 20 week after (time 2) the event.
Age, gender and postcode of residence for all 2008 GNR non-elite runners was provided by the organisers (n = 51 185). Links to on-line surveys were sent to all non-elite runners via email at times 1 and 2. These collected information on age, gender, current physical activity levels (using the short International Physical Activity Questionnaire, IPAQ), self reported height and weight, and postcode of residence. IPAQ responses were used to categorise physical activity over the past seven days as low, moderate or high. Postcodes of residence were used to assign Index of Multiple Deprivation data to those runners living in England (91.7% of all non-elite runners).
Median age of all 51 185 non-elite runners was 35.6 (IQR 28.4 to 43.7) years, 58.9% were male and 53.5% of those living in England lived in the least deprived 40% of areas. 3018 participants responded to the survey at time 1 and 2851 at time 2. Respondents to both surveys were slightly older and less likely to be male than all non-elite runners but had a similar deprivation profile. Among respondents at time 1, physical activity was categorised as high in 65.0% and moderate in 29.2%; median BMI was 24.0 (IQR 22.0 to 26.3). At time 2, physical activity was categorised as high in 68.0% and moderate in 21.8%. Median BMI was 24.0 (IQR 21.9 to 26.3).
The typical GNR participant is male, mid-30s, lives in an area of low deprivation, has a “normal” BMI, and is moderately or highly active. Group-level differences in physical activity and BMI between those responding at time 1 and 2 were minimal. The repeat cross-sectional design means that individual-level conclusions cannot be drawn. GNR participants are not those who could most benefit from increased physical activity. The GNR may provide a focus for maintaining activity and BMI, but there is little evidence that participation leads to sustained group-level improvements in either measure.
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