It looks like an ordinary running club gathering. People show up in layers of wicking apparel, ready to brave the cold. Some stretch while discussing weekend activities, upcoming races or nagging injuries. When they’re ready to go, the group members do a round of introductions before going quiet. Their attention turns to a runner at the front wearing a “featured speaker” nametag, who, as the group trots off down Locust Walk, begins a lecture about the complexities of developing a mobile app that helps harness crowdsourced solutions for complex problems.
Not so ordinary.
Three times a week, the Annenberg (Lunchtime) Running Club gathers at Annenberg Plaza at noon for bouts of exercise that take up perhaps half a lunch hour, leaving time for lingering chats, quick showers, and a timely return to the office. While work projects are frequently the subject of conversation on these informal runs, these conversations grow more structured twice each month, during the Ideas in Motion lecture series, when experts give group members a scripted talk on the move, either running or walking, followed by ample time for questions and answers.
The running group emerged from one member’s impulse to incorporate exercise into a busy workday not otherwise replete with healthy habits.
“When I started at Annenberg, years ago,” recalls Kyle Cassidy, the group’s founder and a technologist at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, “I was partaking of some of the free food left in the main office and our office manager said, ‘This job will conspire to make you fat.’”
Noticing the ill effects of a sedentary office lifestyle, Cassidy embarked on a running routine specifically targeted at the time of day when bad food decisions were the easiest. Five years and thousands of miles later, he was still at it, 40 pounds lighter.
Encouraged by then-Annenberg Dean Michael Delli Carpini to develop programs that helped the greater University and West Philly communities, Cassidy invited colleagues from Annenberg and elsewhere around Penn to join him on his noon runs. And the club was born.
Informal and open to all, the group welcomes all runners, whether or not they’re affiliated with Annenberg or Penn. “People participate on the mailing list even if they’re physically far removed from the core of the group,” Cassidy says, sometimes even posting photos of their workouts. The group now has about 70 members on its Google listserve, though a good day’s showing is around a dozen, a small enough pack for speakers to be heard easily.
True to its academic origins, the running club also has rigorous science undergirding its operation. Two years ago, when Natalie Herbert, a doctoral student at Annenberg, began running with the club, she brought her academic experience to bear. While working with network scientist Damon Centola, a professor at Annenberg, she had studied the effectiveness of social networks on encouraging members to stick to an exercise routine, a project called PennSHAPE.
“What our research was able to unpack,” Herbert says, “is that there’s a common notion that social support is what gets people motivated. But what we actually found was that people with social support performed worse than people who had no contact with a network at all. The thing that got people to the door was an element of social comparison or competition.”
Herbert stresses that the Annenberg running crew is indeed supportive, but there is also a sense of accountability and comparison at play, thanks in part to the listserve where members send quick notes like, “I’ll be there at noon—who else is coming?!” to rally the troops.
“Running only gets better the more systematic you are about it,” Herbert says. “It requires routine. We provide the space and time and the social pressure that encourages people to show up.”
It’s worked for her. “I used to hate running with people,” Herbert says, “I just wanted to be alone with my music. Now I go out and I feel bored if I’m by myself.”
Participation in the group has also enhanced her academic life. It was on a run that Cassidy was discussing his work developing a virtual reality training video to administer Narcan, and Herbert offered input based on her background in health communication. She became a partner on that project, helping craft scripts for the training video that would resonate with a general audience.
“We think so much of doing work behind a desk in solitude when we know more generative ideas come from collaboration, and why wouldn’t that collaboration come from getting out of the confines of an office?” says Herbert.
Another research project may emerge more directly from the group. During another conversation on the run, Matt O’Donnell, a research assistant professor at Annenberg who helped establish the club with Cassidy, shared his thoughts about conducting an assessment of how going from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one—looking at participants in a Couch-to-5K program, such as the one the running group is currently engaged in—changes their cognitive performance. With an ideal group of study subjects close at hand, O’Donnell has submitted paperwork to get such an investigation approved.
Ideas in Motion likewise grew out of the group’s regular lunchtime runs. “We were talking about how we wished we were better about describing our work when you only have a few minutes,” says Cassidy.
They reasoned that a running lecture series would give group members a chance to work on their elevator pitches while getting the physician-recommended 20 minutes of daily vigorous exercise, an amount only one in five American adults currently achieves.
“We’ve had some terrific lectures, one by an archaeologist, another on blockchain, and we have some great ones coming up,” says Cassidy. “Speakers don’t have to be from Penn either. We have someone who helped generate the first TED talks who is interested in speaking with us later this year.”
In addition to the runs and lectures, the group occasionally gathers for healthy potluck lunches, during which they stream coverage of marathons or other running events for inspiration. Their couch-to-5k program is ideal for beginning runners, or those coming back from injury or other setbacks; their goal is to run as a team in the Wharton 5k race in April.
The team usually runs together at a relaxed, conversational pace. “If you’re training seriously for the Boston Marathon, this is not the place for you to get your miles in,” Cassidy says. “It’s a social club.”
The group’s pace did get speedy last month, however, when club members helped chase down a man suspected of stealing a phone and laptop from a Wharton student. Their status as good Samaritans led to hearty handshakes from police and EMTs, and media coverage from local and national outlets.
To Cassidy, though, that experience is just one example of why people should get exercise and participate in clubs like this one in the first place. “The key there is that we’re not preparing to chase burglars, we’re preparing for old age, which is the burglar that will eventually arrive for all of us,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to find yourself in a situation where physical fitness is required, and, if you’ve been preparing yourself to run 13 miles, you’ll also be prepared able to help out in an emergency situation if you’re presented with one; and you’re going to be a lot better off at age 70 or 80 or 90.”