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Politics of keeping fit: MLAs tell us about their lifestyles

First Minister Peter Robinson's heart attack has made other MLAs and MPs take a look at their own lifestyles, so how does their fitness/food regime shape up?

First Minister Peter Robinson has blamed his lifestyle - long working hours, too much fast food and lack of exercise - on the cause for his recent heart attack.

And, as the DUP leader now attempts to take it easy at home under doctors' orders, he hopes that his health scare will serve as a warning to others who are finding it difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Mr Robinson denied that the stress of running Northern Ireland had been a contributing factor to the heart attack he suffered two weeks ago today.

Instead, he insisted that it was the lifestyle issues that come with the job - long hours, which can lead to irregular eating as well as eating the wrong foods.

He told doctors that in the week before his heart attack, he had eaten two Chinese meals, a Kentucky Fried Chicken meal, a McDonald's and a cowboy supper.

Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph, he added: "The trouble is you are not at home to get regular, good, homemade food."

He said that his unhealthy lifestyle would be one which political colleagues in Northern Ireland would identify with.

We asked some of our most senior politicians if they, too, found that the long hours and the pressures of high office interfered with their ability to eat well and exercise. Six leading politicians tell us how they try to strike a balance between relaxing, healthy eating, keeping fit and their busy working lives at Stormont.

'I send emails from before 6am to after midnight'

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt (58) lives just outside Belfast with journalist/lecturer wife Lynda Bryans. They have two teenage sons PJ and Christopher. He says:

The biggest surprise about elected politics is that it is relentlessly 24/7. That means there are constant pressures and challenges. That is not a complaint, this was a career choice on my part and I am very happy with it.

It is simply to acknowledge that you need to manage those pressures. I get by on five to six hours sleep a night and that means I am often emailing and texting from before 6am until after midnight.

I do try to have down-time which I like to spend time with my family. I also have a small group of close friends who keep my feet on the ground, and I can have a good laugh with, not least at myself.

There is an expression called 'The Stormont Stone' which reflects how easy it is to put on serious weight as a MLA. I did put weight on when I was first elected, grazing on too much food during the day and eating ready meals late at night. Now, I often bring a packed lunch to work. I make my own soups, salads and low-fat lunches. Actually, I cook as often as possible and that is one of the ways I switch off from politics.

I try to exercise, mostly walking, some cycling and the occasional round of golf, plus some morning exercises. I think you owe it to people, my family in particular, to stay healthy and we all know physical health is primarily about diet and exercise. I also believe in promoting good mental health and wellbeing. Mindfulness is a simple way of making time to think in healthy positive ways about where you are and how to manage your thoughts and feelings.

'I just can't justify this lifestyle'

Minister for Regional Development and Ulster Unionist MLA, Danny Kennedy (56), from Bessbrook, is married to Karen. They have three children, Philip (22) and Hannah (17) and Stephen (25). He says:

It is almost impossible to quantify the amount of hours I work given my Assembly, Departmental, Executive and constituency commitments.

Add to that family and outside interests, politicians generally lead very busy lives and we accept that lifestyle when we enter government.

I personally find it very difficult to switch off or indeed have down-time, and I accept that this is not a healthy lifestyle to adopt.

As an active and hard-working politician my eating habits are challenging in terms of both diet and timelines, but I do try to get home for family dinner each evening, not least to catch up with my wife and family before rushing off to another meeting or event in my constituency. Generally, I think my experience is similar to all politicians and public figures.

I exercise either by walking or cycling, but I don't do enough of either.

My officials, however, think that I walk very quickly when I'm out and about and complain that the pace I set is challenging to them.

Relaxing is spending time with my wife and family, to watch television or read.

I think the recent health issues affecting Peter Robinson have served to make all of us involved politics take stock and not take our health for granted.

However, old habits die hard and we will all probably revert to type.

I just can't justify this lifestyle - but that is the system that we all tolerate."

'I try to train five days a week'

Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly (62), from Belfast, has taken deliberate steps to improve his lifestyle over the past few years, despite a demanding work schedule. He says:

We work unsocial hours. An average day, for me, starts at 6.15am when I head off to train - either running or gym work.

I try to train five days a week - but fairly regularly I have to do early meetings or morning media.

For breakfast, I usually have porridge and banana or some other fruit over the cereal.

My average day does not include a lunch break outside of a having carton of soup with bread. I try to make sure that I get a home-cooked meal three or four times a week, but it isn't always possible.

I would usually take one junk food meal a week and avoid them outside of that.

I'm aware of my lifestyle and the health risks.

But I have taken steps over the last few years to live and eat a little healthier.

Almost every night there are meetings or house calls, as well as at the weekends.

I'm aware of trying for a 'life-balance' approach, but it can be very difficult.

One of the advantages I have is that, generally, I can switch off and I sleep well.

I look forward to holidays, but it seems like I've had to change my arrangements nearly every year.

Home life for the family is disrupted by the fact that my lifestyle disrupts it."

'I said it wouldn't happen, but I did put on the Stormont stone'

DUP MLA, Brenda Hale (47) lives in Lisburn with daughters Alexandra (14) and Victoria (22). Brenda, whose husband Captain Mark Hale was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, is aware through her military background of how important it is to live a healthy lifestyle. She says:

They talk about 'the Stormont stone', and I said it couldn't happen to me - but that is exactly what you put on. The other day I was working for 17 hours with the Justice Bill. I tried to walk the corridors when I could to get in five miles, but when you are doing 16 hours a day, you are lucky if you walk a mile-and-a-half between meetings.

Most days you don't get the chance to eat. For me, I grab a cup of coffee and chances are if you do get to eat, it is something high in sugar and fat.

Because of my military background I am very conscious of the need for good exercise and diet, but I just don't get time.

It is a constant battle, which is a bit easier in the summer, when I try to get up early and walk a couple of miles before work.

If I get home by 8pm, I can get out for a walk in my local forest, but in the winter when you are working daylight hours, like a lot of people do, it is just not possible.

I do worry about it. I find myself telling my staff to go and get their lunch knowing that I haven't time to get anything.

Some days I can go a whole day and not find time to eat at all.

At the end of a long day when you are tired and hungry, it is so easy to pick up a takeaway on the way home.

What happened to Peter Robinson is a wake-up call for all of us. The problem is, when you have to make that call or send that email you will do it because you want people to know that you are thinking about their issues, and sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day - and your welfare gets put to the bottom of the pile."

'Going to the gym was boring'

SDLP justice spokesman and MLA Alban Maginness (64) MLA, from Belfast, is married to Carmel and has eight children and five grandchildren. He says:

I am very fortunate that my wife is a former home economics teacher and she is very insistent on healthy eating and, so as far as my diet is concerned, it is well calibrated.

I would normally try to eat at home five days a week and every time it is a well-balanced meal with non-fatty foods, and that is something that I would be enthusiastic about.

I think it is important to make sure to have a healthy diet and avoid butter and processed foods which are very bad for you, and eat good lean meat and a balance of vegetables and salads, and that's something which I embrace.

I usually have toast and an egg for breakfast with soup and yoghurt for lunch.

I can see how it would be difficult for some colleagues to maintain regular healthy eating as the Assembly can run on very late, maybe finishing at 10pm - recently, it was 2am.

It can be extremely difficult on Mondays and Tuesdays when the Assembly is sitting, but by and large, I think you have to make it an objective to get home and eat.

My down-time is spent reading. I love to read and find it very relaxing. I like fiction and history of all sorts. My wife and I both read and we exchange books, it's good fun.

My grandchildren are also a great source of fun and relaxation.

I don't get a lot of exercise. I used to go to the gym on a Sunday morning, but to be honest I found it boring, so I try to get out for a walk when I can.

I can see how it would be difficult to have a healthy lifestyle in our job but I think you have to make a conscious decision to look after yourself even if it is difficult to enforce. I think you owe it to yourself, your family and your colleagues.

But, no, I don't think there is anything wrong with eating takeaways occasionally."

'I don't feel guilty over odd choc bar'

Alliance Party Leader and Justice Minister, David Ford (64), from Antrim, is married to Anne and they've four grown-up children. He says:

Politics can be very demanding at certain times, with 12-hour days not uncommon, then paperwork to do at home. Sitting in the Assembly Chamber until 1.30am is certainly not healthy.

I do my best to get some down-time with the family at weekends as an essential way of dealing with the demands of being Minister of Justice.

I try to eat sensibly, by generally having a light lunch and a proper meal when I get home, rather than fast food. I also try to get my 'five a day', especially when that includes something which is home grown.

I don't really worry about my diet and don't feel guilty over the odd chocolate bar or portion of chips.

I don't get as much exercise as I should, but do a bit of jogging, the occasional run and as much walking and outdoor activity as I can.

The tragic death of Charles Kennedy probably caused me to think most, as he was a few years younger than me."

Facts at heart of the matter

  • 1.2m men and 900,000 women are living with chronic angina - with which the ability to live relies as much on the correct lifestyle as it does on medication
  • Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is the most common cause of death before 65, accounting for one in six males and one in 10 females. Death from CHD before age 75 accounts for two in every five males and females
  • On average, 180,000 adults have died annually in the UK from heart disease and circulatory disease in the last five years
  • Every five minutes, someone in the UK will suffer a heart attack
  • Every three minutes, someone in the UK will have a stroke

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