Social reward and support effects on exercise experiences and performance: Evidence from parkrun

PLoS One. 2021 Sep 15;16(9):e0256546. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0256546. eCollection 2021.


There is growing academic, civic and policy interest in the public health benefits of community-based exercise events. Shifting the emphasis from competitive sport to communal activity, these events have wide appeal. In addition to physical health benefits, regular participation can reduce social isolation and loneliness through opportunities for social connection. Taking a broad evolutionary and social psychological perspective, we suggest that social factors warrant more attention in current approaches to physical (in)activity and exercise behavior. We develop and test the hypothesis that social reward and support in exercise are associated with positive exercise experiences and greater performance outputs. Using a repeated-measures design, we examine the influence of social perceptions and behavior on subjective enjoyment, energy, fatigue, effort, and objective performance (run times) among a UK sample of parkrun participants. Social factors were associated with greater subjective enjoyment and energy. Higher subjective energy, in turn, was associated with faster run times, without any corresponding increase in perceived effort. No significant main effects of social factors on fatigue, performance or effort were detected. The role of social structural factors has long been recognized in public health approaches to physical activity. Our results indicate that there should be greater research attention on how positive and rewarding social behaviors and experiences-particularly subjective enjoyment and energy, and perceptions of community social support and belonging-influence exercise-related behavior, psychology and physiology, and promote health through collective physical activity. The research also supplements traditional emphases on social facilitation and team sport that have dominated sport and exercise psychology and offers new avenues for understanding the deep connections among psychological, social and physical function in everyday health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Fatigue / psychology
  • Female
  • Health Promotion
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation / physiology
  • Psychology, Social
  • Public Health
  • Running / psychology*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Support
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding

AD: Clarendon Scholarship, University of Oxford; EC: British Academy Fellowship (ref: MD130076). The British Academy. ( PMC: Science Foundation Ireland, grant number 16/IA/4470 The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.