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Running towards wellbeing: Lessons from Humza Yousaf’s fitness pledge

Oscar Crowe

Account Executive

In March 2023, Humza Yousaf ascended to the pinnacle of Scottish politics, becoming Scotland’s First Minister after Nicola Sturgeon’s almost decade-long tenure as the SNP’s leader. Yousaf’s meteoric rise through Holyrood was marked by a series of stellar personal achievements. He became Scotland’s youngest-ever MSP at the age of just 26, held two major ministerial positions in Holyrood and became the first Muslim to lead a major UK party all before the age of 40.

However, just as hastily as he rose to power, Yousaf’s stint as First Minister came crashing down. Less than 13 months into his tenure as leader, he was forced to resign following the dissolution of the SNP’s power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Greens. Yousaf’s resignation was met with ridicule from across the political spectrum and media landscape. Alex Salmond, the former First Minister, whom Yousaf had worked closely with earlier in his career, publicly berated him as “Humza the brief”, while political commentator Andrew Neil branded his leadership as “disastrous”.

In a candid social media post last week, Yousaf openly shared the intense strain that this tumultuous political ordeal had placed on his mental health. He stated, “I am not ashamed of saying the last few weeks have taken their toll on my mental health.” He added that in an effort to improve his mental health, he is embarking on the ‘couch to 5k’ scheme. Yousaf’s openness serves as a powerful reminder that mental health challenges do not discriminate. They can affect anyone, including public figures who often present themselves as invulnerable.

Humza Yousaf Social Media Post

Yousaf’s commitment to this physical challenge reflects the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, “Moving for mental health.” Politicians, much like professionals working within public affairs and public relations, often advocate for increased physical activity in impactful campaigns, yet they themselves may struggle to find the time or motivation to exercise regularly. This is a struggle that permeates society, as the Mental Health Foundation claims that 36% of UK adults find it challenging to find time for physical activity.

A recent mental health wellbeing audit, conducted by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the PRCA, revealed that one-third of public relations practitioners are currently diagnosed with a mental health condition. The audit also found that 91% of PR professionals experienced poor mental health at some point in the past year, with 58% citing workload stress as a significant contributing factor.

Inspired by this year’s theme and Humza Yousaf’s pledge to implement physical activity into his own weekly schedule, this blog aims to explore the benefits of movement for improving one’s mental health and will share some helpful resources.

 

The Benefits of Movement for Mental Health

The benefits of regular physical activity are extensive and well-documented. Movement can significantly improve one’s mood by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural mood lifters. It can also reduce anxiety and help manage stress, lowering inflammation in the body, which is linked to numerous chronic conditions. Regular exercise enhances memory and concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain, which improves cognitive function. Additionally, achieving fitness goals, no matter how small, can boost confidence and self-esteem. Physical activity also helps regulate sleep patterns, leading to better rest, and can increase social connectedness through group activities and sports, helping to build social bonds and reduce feelings of loneliness.

 

The Science Behind Movement and Mental Health

A comprehensive study of over one million people revealed that regular movers reported 12-23% lower levels of mental health problems compared to those who were less active, even when accounting for factors like gender, income, and other variables.

Moreover, research from the University of Edinburgh shows that regular physical activity can lead to a 30% reduction in the risk of developing depression. This study highlights the profound impact that even modest amounts of physical activity can have on mental health, suggesting that integrating movement into daily life can significantly improve overall well-being.

 

Small Steps, Big Impact

For those just starting out on their fitness journey, or those with demanding schedules or caring responsibilities, it’s crucial to recognise that even short bursts of movement are beneficial. As little as 15 minutes of movement a day can positively impact mental health, and the more often we move, the greater the benefits. In our fast-paced world, many of us spend long hours sitting at our desks, which is detrimental to both our physical and mental health. Research from the British Journal of Sports Medicine indicates that breaking up prolonged sitting with short, regular intervals of standing or walking can improve mental health and reduce feelings of fatigue.

 

Taking Action

To integrate more movement into your life, consider setting achievable goals. Start with short walks during your lunch break, stretch regularly throughout the day, or take up a new activity like yoga or dancing. For those inspired by Humza Yousaf’s example, the ‘Couch to 5k’ program is an excellent way to start running, gradually building up your stamina and confidence. Remember, movement is not about achieving peak physical fitness or running marathons (unless you want to); it’s about finding ways to move more in a manner that your body allows, and you feel comfortable with.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, it is important that people try and embrace the theme of movement in an effort to improve mindfulness. Not only will it enhance one’s physical health, but it will also provide an always-welcome boost of serotonin.

 

Resources

Couch to 5km: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/get-running-with-couch-to-5k/

Active 10: https://www.nhs.uk/better-health/

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