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Why ASICS became the first sports brand to ask athletes to stop exercising

The sports brands latest campaign from Golin asks athletes not to move to underline the mental health benefits of exercise.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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By urging athletes not to exercise for 7 days ASICS and Golin have flipped the script on the usual formulaic sports narrative. Rather than conforming to the belief that exercise is something you do because of how it makes your body look, the campaign unlocked a deeper truth; that the true joy of exercise is how it makes you feel. The ASICS - Mind Race campaign which ran globally was designed to bring to life the mental benefits of exercise. 

Caroline Fisher, Communications Director at ASICS, explains that ASICS is a brand that, while known by many, is actually understood by far too few. “Very few consumers knew what made the ASICS brand unique. But, ASICS does have a very unique and authentic brand positioning,” she says.

ASICS is actually an acronym for the Latin “Anima Sana in Corpore Sano” or “a Sound Mind in a Sound Body”. And the company was founded more than 70 years ago with the belief that exercise has a benefit not just on the body, but also on the mind.   

Yet for its authentic positioning, Fisher says that not enough people associate ASICS with mental wellbeing. A gap that the campaign aims to close, as she explains: “Mind Race was aimed at driving a familiarity with ASICS’ Sound Mind Sound Body positioning and its focus on movement for mental wellbeing.”

Creative nonconformity

The campaign is rooted in creative nonconformity; rather than extolling the virtues of exercise, instead the team focused on the cost of not moving. Alex Wood, Executive Creative Director at Golin, explained that ASICS needed to stand out in a market dominated by big players so needed a story which was ‘unignorable’. A pursuit that was rooted in exploring what happens to our mental state when we stop exercising. 

He explains: “The negative mental impact of inactivity is arguably the greatest incentive to move – but it’s always been intangible. Exactly how bad is it? What does it specifically do to you? What does this look like inside your head?”

To find out, ASICS set out to become the first sports brand to stop athletes from moving; using cutting edge technology to draw out this internal mental story for the world to see.

Exercise, and running in particular, have become central to so many people’s lives. And it had nothing to do with times and medals but everything to do with simply feeling better

Caroline Fisher, Communications Director at ASICS

Breaking the stigma surrounding mental health

The campaign comes as the creative industries continue to raise the bar and break the stigma which still surrounds mental health. ASICS’ Fisher agrees that the pandemic clearly exacerbated record global mental health challenges which will endure far beyond 2022. However, she notes that throughout the restrictions many people turned to exercise to find their freedom and reconnect body and mind. “The simple act of movement - feet pounding, heart beating, endorphin-releasing movement - helped people feel better,” she adds. 

She continues: “Exercise, and running in particular, have become central to so many people’s lives. And it had nothing to do with times and medals but everything to do with simply feeling better. For many, running has become a source of positive energy to give both their physical and mental wellbeing a much-needed boost.”

We’ve seen unprecedented changes to working patterns over the past two years. And the fact is, UK workers are now more stressed and moving less during the working day than ever before

Caroline Fisher, Communications Director at ASICS

Movement for mental wellbeing

ASICS’ own research shows that more and more people are moving for their mental wellbeing. While a growing swathe of research underlines that the next generation of leaders aren’t prepared to ‘bleed to succeed’ and instead place a premium on their wellbeing. 

According to the recent Microsoft Workplace trends report, 53% of employees value wellbeing above all else. A shift which suggests we are perhaps on the cusp of a more holistic approach to success; whether on the pitch and pavement, or in the (hybrid) office. 

Yet, while the pandemic has ushered in a once in a generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better; the truth is that many workers find themselves in a state of overwhelm. (That same Microsoft Workplace report suggests that we should all be asking ‘could this meeting have been an email?’ more following a 252% increase in weekly time spent in meetings for the average Teams user since February 2020.)

“We’ve seen unprecedented changes to working patterns over the past two years. And the fact is, UK workers are now more stressed and moving less during the working day than ever before,” adds ASICS Fisher. 

Rethinking exercise in the workplace

The rise of workplace stress in the wake of a pandemic which has brought with it unfathomable loss on a global scale, means that addressing mental health in the workplace must go beyond the lip service leadership which can sometimes accompany mental health week. For far from a one-off mental health week wellness session, Fisher believes a more fundamental shift is necessary. 

She explains: “Most people know that exercise is one of the more effective ways to reduce stress. Yet in the workplace, that translates into Zumba and yoga sessions. Perhaps a run club and potentially a gym. Fantastic for some. But not for everyone.”

With this in mind, she believes change is necessary. As she says: “We actually think it’s time to rethink exercise in the workplace specifically to address the stress epidemic we are facing with an approach that’s proven to work. We believe it’s time to create a culture where exercise and movement breaks become normal and something employees look forward to beforehand and feel better for afterwards.”

Last year ASICS created and tested ‘Movement for Mind’ -  a simple, movement-based programme specifically designed to improve employees' mental wellbeing. “We proved through one of the largest independent, randomised control trials that just getting outside and moving for an hour a week can significantly impact employee wellbeing. We’ve made the programme freely available to everyone,” says Fisher. 

Younger people, especially women, are moving less and feeling the impact. Gen Z moves an hour a week less than older people and has far lower State of Mind scores

Caroline Fisher, Communications Director at ASICS

Forming better habits

On the cusp of this once in a generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better, addressing that 252% increase in meetings is essential; it's important to recognise the importance of time and space not just for employees' productivity, but for their mental health. The cumulative effect of a working pattern that doesn’t even afford space for a toilet break is difficult to overestimate; in short, this is burnout at scale. 

Creating and protecting the time and space to move more is vital. As Fisher explains: “We know through our own extensive research that people who move more have higher State of Mind Scores. They simply feel better. But we do see worrying gaps. Younger people, especially women, are moving less and feeling the impact. Gen Z moves an hour a week less than older people and has far lower State of Mind scores.”

She continues: “We see an opportunity to inspire and support more and more people to move for positive mental health. We need to demonstrate that simply getting out and moving more can have a positive impact on body and mind. And we need to change the dialogue about sport and exercise to inspire more people to give it a go.”

It feels we’ve come a long way in breaking the stigma around mental health, but there’s more to do. Continuing to push openness, inclusion and discussion around it can only help – with brands focused on action and representation

Alex Wood, Executive Creative Director at Golin

Changing the narrative

The creative industries have a huge role in changing that dialogue and moving on from the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ narrative that has perpetuated the myth that sport is for the privileged few, rather than a joyful, essential engine of a happy and fulfilled, healthy life. 

Golin’s Wood is equal parts passionate and eloquent on the necessity of that change. He explains: “There’s a responsibility to move on from outdated stereotypes and celebrate everyone’s relationship with movement. However you move, it benefits your mind – creative work should tell this story, rather than creating more barriers with elitism. Ultimately, it’s about creating a conversation in which there is no one right exercise answer. It’s what works for you.”

He continued: “It feels we’ve come a long way in breaking the stigma around mental health, but there’s more to do. Continuing to push openness, inclusion and discussion around it can only help – with brands focused on action and representation.” 

Yet, he is equally clear that it is time to move beyond lip-service leadership. As he explains: “Words only go so far. How are you actively helping bring in everyone’s story to change the narrative?”

Beyond blood, sweat and tears

It is this deeds not words approach that is evident in ASICS work. Here is a brand which is actively smashing stereotypes to get people moving.

As ASICS Fisher explains: “The world of sport has tended to be a sea of sameness. Dominated by “ruler” and “hero” brands focused on the physical effort you have to put into sport or the winning moment that comes from playing sport. A world where we’re told to push harder, go faster and stop at nothing. Where good, is never good enough and limits can’t just be reached, they need to be stretched and smashed and broken. So it's no wonder that some people think exercise is not for me.” A status quo that groundbreaking campaigns like this are successfully smashing

For Golin’s Wood that ‘storytelling stereotype’ of sporty, performance-driven people feeling the greatest mental benefit of exercise – accessing the peak ‘runner’s high’ if you will - while everyone else just feels exhausted and a bit sick - is ripe for smashing. He explains: “The campaign aims to prove that whoever you are, whatever your relationship with exercise, you can significantly uplift your state of mind with just 15 minutes of movement. You don’t need to be able to run a 4-minute mile.”

It is an important campaign andd one which demands both attention and action. As Wood adds: “The barrier to changing your mind through movement is low.” A powerful reminder that committing to small decisions, each and every day can have a huge impact. We all deserve to move more; creating and protecting the space to ensure that goal is a reality must be both a corporate and individual commitment. For as this campaign beautifully conveys the cost of staying still is simply too high a price to pay.  

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