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by Joan McAlpine
12 December 2023
Why Scottish politics was so bad for my health

Before and after losing weight | Image: Joan McAlpine on X

Why Scottish politics was so bad for my health

As the proud winner of a Holyrood Tweet of the Year accolade, I should know how to “generate traffic” on the social media platform Elon Musk insists we now call X. Political insight into the recent troubles of the SNP guarantees a satisfying flurry of likes. We all love a critical friend. Still, X can deliver surprise hits too.

A recent image posted on my account attracted a staggering 56,000 views, double my followers.  The snap, of me in a size 10 business suit, was juxtaposed with one of me in 2019, four stone heavier, dressed in a billowing tent.

Forget world affairs, political jousting and Scotland’s future, weight loss is the new click-bait. 

It was the pandemic, not vanity, that motivated me. (Well maybe a bit of vanity. Did I mention the suit is a size 10?) Mortality rates were higher if you were heavier and those with health conditions linked to weight were vulnerable. 

The last stone or so was only shed in recent months when I finally began to use my gym membership. I reached a healthy BMI and finally felt smug enough to tell the world.

But maybe the private is political, even something as personal as a slimming story. Perhaps politics was bad for my health, I speculated.

Politicians don’t attract sympathy with regards to work-life balance. Compared to an NHS shift worker they have little to complain about. But the lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to routine, rest or healthy choices. 

If you live far from Edinburgh you are likely to have a long, sedentary commute. Unless you count the walk from the MSP tower to the chamber, there’s not a lot of physical activity. You start your day at 8am in parliament with the committee pre-briefs, then the meeting itself which will last several hours, all seated.

MSPs also have meetings at lunchtime – cross-party groups promoting worthwhile charitable causes. There is an expectation to attend. More sitting. Then it’s bums on seats in the chamber until the vote at five – or later.

Back to the office to catch up with emails and any urgent constituency business that might have emerged in the course of the day… which is not over.

Early evening sees more cross-party groups and parliamentary receptions – again, usually for very worthwhile causes. Party whips expect their troops to show up and show interest. “When you are in these four walls you belong to me!” the chief whip told our newly elected group in 2011. Terrifying. 

The evening receptions usually have a variety of carb-rich canapes on which to graze. And then there’s the wine.  You can say no, of course you can. But if you haven’t eaten all day and are drained... resistance can be low.

So, you get back to your flat – family are far away, remember. If you’ve resisted the carb-heavy canapes you might pop something in the microwave to eat watching the late news. Most MSPs have at least two committees and that means absorbing hundreds of pages of briefing papers and evidence. I remember regularly scrutinising evidence of Brexit impacts at 2am. There is, of course, a direct correlation between sleep deprivation and weight gain. 

Your weekends don’t offer much downtime. You might have a large rural constituency to get round – more driving and snacking.

Of course, many people have demanding jobs but are disciplined enough to establish healthy habits. To use a current buzzword, if you want to change something, you must be “intentional” and carve out time for yourself.

But putting yourself first is not always easy in public life. There is a strong sense of obligation – to constituents, colleagues, local party members. Saying no is a recipe for guilt. The reason I was able to lose weight starting in lockdown is because I was more in control of my routine.

I now try to go to the gym every evening – that would have felt impossible in politics. There is also the sense of being exposed as an MSP. To puff around Holyrood Park, unless you already cut a svelte athletic figure, risks ridicule. 

There is a pocket-sized gym in the MSP block, but who wants to get up close and sweaty with the opposition on the next treadmill? No women I knew. “It’s a Tory testosterone zone,” I recall one female minister quipping.

There were some members who set an example – I often saw the Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie heading through the garden lobby in his running gear. I could only admire him; it didn’t cross my mind to wonder whether he was missing a cross-party group. Guilt makes us lose perspective. One hour of exercise is transformational – you could use that up scrolling on your phone and not even notice the time.

This issue is undeniably political. A report this week found two-thirds of people in the UK are overweight or obese. The costs are £100bn a year and rising, not the sort of national growth we need.

Politicians need to move away from the “gentle encouragement” approach to obesity which has so far failed. They need to practise tough love – for some, that starts with paying more attention to themselves. It worked for me.

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