On Tom Watson’s first day at the Ministry of Defence, he sent the security system into lockdown when it detected two people trying to enter the building. At 22 stone, this was just one of a string of humiliating mishaps suffered by the former Deputy Leader of the Labour party.
In his book Downsizing, written after losing eight stone, Watson describes eating another customer’s leftover cake in a café, and breaking numerous dining room chairs. “I even cracked the bath,” he says, recalling the base caving in as he attempted to haul himself out. Unable to walk half a mile to work from his central London flat, he instead “let the cab take the flab”.
While Watson had been, in his own words, “hefty”, since university, his election as an MP didn’t help his battle with the bulge: “Not only did these long hours and erratic schedules disrupt my sleep patterns and heighten my blood pressure, they also played havoc with my eating habits.”
Watson isn’t the only politician to carry some extra timber, with PM Boris Johnson admitting he was “too fat” when he went to hospital for COVID in April. “Like many people, I struggle with my weight,” says Johnson, who at 17 and a half stone was “obese” according to the NHS’s BMI calculator. But Johnson’s had a stern word with himself (“don’t be a fatty in your fifties”) and he’s since been seen running with his rescue dog Dilyn, and fitness influencer Harry Jameson, who he’s hired as a personal trainer.
Of course, Members of Parliament don’t have the monopoly on demanding schedules, and for many of us it can seem as if there aren’t enough hours in the day to exercise. So what can we learn from the country’s movers and shakers? Let’s take a look…
Schedule exercise into your day. Block off that time in your diary and do not waver. When Watson started exercising, he’d block off time to see his PT, only to miss the session because his staff had scheduled in last-minute meetings. Gently reminding them not to do this didn’t work, so Watson made it clear: “if any more morning meetings happened to clash with my walks or workouts, I simply would not attend, full stop.”
Get in early
“The great thing about going for a run at the beginning of the day, is that nothing could be worse for the rest of the day,” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDdkWgcZeqw&ab_channel=EveningStandard] says Johnson. Watson also favours exercising first thing – but it’s not just about getting the torture over with. The endorphins get your day off on a positive foot, and the earlier start goes hand in hand with having an earlier night. Making this change weaned Watson off his unhealthy habit of sitting up eating takeaways, and it can also help with cutting back on booze (a big win when you want to lose weight).
“Gyms are great but you don’t need to have a gym,” says Johnson, pointing out that there are “fantastic trainers that you can watch on You Tube.” In fact, we’ve rounded up the best ones to try here. Both Johnson and Watson exercise outdoors, and Watson’s first session with a PT involved jumping in and out of a sandpit (“never before had I felt as exposed and as vulnerable as I did in that children’s playground”). Even if you’ve only got 20 minutes, you can do a great workout at home with no equipment.
It all adds up
Keen cyclist Johnson (once described as a “knight on a shining bicycle” ) has proved there’s nothing nerdy about peddle power. It’s also great exercise. You might not be able to set aside an hour to see a PT, but you can optimise your opportunities to be physically active. Cycling or walking to work, even if it’s just part of the route, is one way of doing this. Take the stairs instead of the lift, walk up escalators, and schedule in walking meetings, as Watson did at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Walking while you’re talking will help you burn fat – and keep your fingers out of the boardroom biscuit jar.
“If you don’t sort your nutrition out, there’s virtually no point in doing exercise,” says Watson, who’s gone from frenzied Bakewell tart binges to crusading against sugar. While Watson’s attitude (and diet) is austere, it’s true that you’ll make more progress if you cut back on excesses, so look at where you can make tweaks. Have one sugar instead of three, make the multi-pack of Penguins last a fortnight rather than a weekend, and spread the case of wine out over a month, rather than two or three weeks. You’ll always feel better for doing exercise (it’s never time wasted) but you’ll feel more motivated if you’re seeing results, and these will be more visible if you’re not scoring an own goal every evening.
Samantha Rea is a freelance journalist and a qualified personal trainer.