What is one of the smartest ways to improve the health of your business? Take care of your own health
Naomi Miller spends every ounce of energy and every minute of the day growing her architectural-lighting consulting firm. Or at least it feels that way. Since she launched her business in Troy, N.Y., about a year ago, it's been hard for her to see anything else as a priority. And for Miller that dedication has paid off with steady business growth. Unfortunately, her intensity also has taken its toll on her health. "I have many sleepless nights when I'm fretting about work," she says, sighing. "I'm mentally adding up all the commitments I have to comply with." She also feels the strain physically. "My muscle tone is starting to go," she grumbles. "All my weight is going south. It's continental drift."
Despite her best intentions, she finds it nearly impossible to maintain any semblance of a fitness regime. "I put so much emphasis on my business and getting and staying ahead, getting my name out there, that all the business stuff has to come first," says Miller. "At the end of the day if a proposal has to go out, that will happen before I go to the gym."
Miller is hardly unique. Entrepreneurs are exceptionally motivated and driven to build thriving, healthy companies. But, ironically, when it comes to their own health, those high achievers often fall flat. As a personal trainer, I work with many successful business owners and executives who've been stymied in their efforts to get and stay in shape. They -- and maybe you -- have made that same old New Year's resolution year after year.
Why can't such determined people accomplish as much on the fitness front as they do on the business battlefield? Lack of time is the usual explanation, but there's more to it than that. Too often, the same personal qualities that produce professional success are obstacles to fitness success. It doesn't have to be that way. You can take a few easy steps to improve your overall fitness without feeling like you are in training for a triathlon. But first you have to recognize that certain ways of thinking, common to many business owners, will guarantee you failure.
The 110% solution
"Never stop." "Give it all you've got." "Do whatever it takes." Does that sound like you? As an entrepreneur or CEO, you are committed to your business 110%. You are intense and demanding -- especially of yourself.
Although that mind-set may be great for your company's bottom line, it might not be so great for yours. When applied to exercise, it can lead to the all-or-nothing trap: if you can't commit to an hour at the gym four or five times a week, then you figure you might as well not bother at all. And even if you do start such a strict program, as soon as you miss a few sessions, you are likely to quit. For example, Peter Zeughauser ran and lifted weights regularly before he started his own legal consulting firm in Newport Beach, Calif., four years ago. But, he recalls, "when I started my business, I stopped weight lifting. Even though people told me it was OK to miss some days, I said, 'Screw it.' That was not my mentality. If I couldn't do my own regimen, which was three times a week, I wouldn't do it at all." The result? He may not feel it yet, but Zeughauser is getting weaker every year. Without some kind of strength training, he -- like all of us -- is naturally losing muscle as he ages.
If you share Zeughauser's all-or-nothing mentality, you may find the remedy surprising: take it easy. Many recent studies show that to control your weight, cut your risk of heart attack, and have more energy to enjoy life, all you need is 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week. Furthermore, you don't have to do the 30 minutes all at once. The U.S. surgeon general, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American College of Sports Medicine all agree: three 10-minute bouts of nonstop motion are as good as half an hour. And all sorts of activities qualify -- as long as you keep moving for at least 10 minutes -- including yard work, dog walking, and housecleaning. Keep it up, and you -- and your doctor -- may be surprised at your next checkup to find that your blood pressure is lower, your cholesterol levels are improved, and maybe even your weight is down.
You don't have to stick to a schedule; that way, it will be easier to keep up your 30 minutes a day when travel, business, or family obligations arise. Plus, you'll be more likely to avoid injuries and burnout, which often doom overly aggressive exercisers. Certainly, if your goals are ambitious or specific -- say, to run a marathon or to reshape your body -- you need a more vigorous, structured workout. And you'll eventually want to do a few things to keep your muscles strong -- though you surely can forgo a regime like Zeughauser's old one . But if you just want to start improving your health and sense of well-being, you can forget those hour-long visits to the gym.
Ask lighting consultant Miller. Though she still kicks herself for not making it to her local YMCA more regularly, she realizes that a lot of her normal day-to-day activities have been helping to keep her weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol at decent levels. "I almost never sit down," she explains. "I'm kind of a type A personality. If you counted the number of minutes I sat during the day, it would be astonishingly low." And, she notes, "I won't drive around for 20 minutes looking for a parking spot. I will park a few blocks away and walk." For years she has taken the stairs instead of the elevator, even when she travels. "In airports I never take the people movers or escalators," says Miller. "I take stairs, or I walk. I especially like the stairs at O'Hare," she adds. "They're really steep, and I feel like I'm getting a workout. Since I'm on a plane once a week, it adds up."
The indispensability issue
Even a modest amount of activity may seem impossible to fit into your day. After all, your business depends on you, and nearly all your waking (and some of your sleeping) hours are devoted to it. You may view time away from your business as "lost." But work and exercise need not be mutually exclusive.
Combine the two whenever you can. Talking business during a round of golf is the classic example, but there are many others. Robert Schonfeld, a private art dealer in New York City, works out regularly at the gym and sees many of the same people each time. "The socializing one does at the gym," he says, "if you hold it up to a light and look at it differently, can be called networking. If you are in a business where contacts with people matter, networking can be an important part of being there."
"My head is clearer when I'm running. My thoughts are more creative. I'm not at my desk -- I'm outside and stimulated by other things."
You also can walk to nearby business meetings instead of driving or taking a cab. Your head will be clearer when you arrive, and you may even save time.
Remember that you are not trading work time for play time. The few minutes of physical activity will increase your productivity. Even though legal consultant Zeughauser abandoned his weight-lifting regime, he still runs nearly every day and says his road work definitely improves his office work. "My head is clearer when I'm running," he says. "My thoughts are more creative. I'm not at my desk; I'm outside and stimulated by other things."
Even if your bike ride or speed walk produces no brainstorms, regular exercise reduces stress, increases energy, and makes you feel better in general -- all of which can only improve your effectiveness. As Schonfeld puts it, "My whole mental and physical being becomes dull if I don't exercise."
The competency crisis
You are good at what you do. You thrive on competition and achievement. You're a quick study. You expect -- and like -- to feel competent and accomplished. But that may not be how you feel when you start to exercise. You may feel uncoordinated, exhausted, and maybe even old and fat.
"Who needs this?" you may think as the door to the gym slams behind you on your way out. Don't give up! Instead, create opportunities for fitness success.
Begin by doing something you know how to do. Step classes and cardio kickboxing are great exercise, but if you haven't worked out lately or had much dance experience, they may be dizzying at first. Walk or ride a bicycle. There's plenty of time later to try the tricky stuff.
Start at a level that is appropriate for your experience. If you've never jogged before, you may feel winded and miserable after just a few minutes. Instead, try walking at a pace fast enough to speed up your breathing somewhat but slow enough to carry on a conversation.
Select an activity you enjoy. Not only will you feel proficient, but you will probably do it more often.
Choose a location where you won't feel self-conscious. If your neighbor the jock puts in the miles at the high school track, walk around the block or at the mall instead.
Be realistic. Miller, the lighting consultant, feels discouraged when she lifts weights at the YMCA. "When I sit down at the machine to do 20 pounds and some big burly guy left it at 170, that is really depressing," she says. Remember, that "big burly guy" has probably been at it for years. Or he's much younger than you. Or he just has good genes.
Compete if you must -- but against yourself. Set small, specific, achievable goals. Skip the elevator in the evening and in the morning. Or get off the bus one stop early the first week, then two stops early the second week. As your fitness level improves, choose more difficult challenges to master.
If you still can't stick with an exercise program, you can always follow the lead of legal consultant Zeughauser. He has a powerful motivator: guilt, in the form of his three canine running buddies. "I decide I want to blow off a day, but then I look at the dogs," he says, laughing. "And I just can't do that to them."
Please consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program.
Joan Friedman, a lawyer and former magazine editor, is a certified personal trainer based in New York City.