By Theodore Kinni
Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.
“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together.” Plato wrote that about 400 years before the birth of Christ. I have no idea if the Greek philosopher pursued physical fitness, but it’s said that he died peacefully in his bed at the age of 81—which I assume was considered a ripe old age in those days.
It’s not a bad life span these days either. After all, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is just under 79 years. The only problem, according the founder of The Leadership Academy of Barcelona, executive coach, and b-school professor Steven P. MacGregor, is that a career in business is not exactly conducive to a long life. “As we advance through a career, we tend to increasingly live our lives on a purely mental level, with all of our emails and strategies and meetings and metrics, forgetting we have a body until something goes wrong with it!” he explains in the opening chapter of his book, Sustaining Executive Performance: How the New Self-Management Drives Innovation, Leadership, and a More Resilient World (Pearson FT Press, 2014).
Happily, MacGregor has a solution—a program designed specifically to help business people become physically as well as mentally fit. Its five elements are Move, Recover, Focus, Fuel, and Train.
MOVE: “Movement is in our DNA,” says MacGregor. Our ancestors traveled an average of 12 miles a day to do their jobs—the constant search for sustenance and other life-sustaining supplies. Interestingly, that is also the same distance that Mick Jagger travels during a Rolling Stones concert.
Unfortunately, most managers aren’t nearly as mobile as cavemen or Mick. They spend large blocks of time sitting in offices, in meetings, and on planes—leaving them susceptible to atrophied muscles, sluggish circulation, and chronic diseases, such as diabetes.
The prescription for the “sitting disease,” says McGregor, isn’t to start running marathons, but instead to build continuous series of small movements into your day. Visit your colleagues’ offices rather than calling or texting them, stand up while reading, hold “walking meetings” à la Steve Jobs, and use conference calls as an opportunity to walk.
RECOVER: “The physical process of training is one where the stress that is placed on the body, whether on a cardiovascular or muscular level, is valuable only when it is followed by recovery,” says MacGregor. “During recovery, the muscles grow stronger after the initial damage of the training, and the heart renews.” In managerial terms, that means we need built recovery time into our work lives.
You can do that by planning your day around the rhythms of your body. Schedule intense work efforts during the hours when you feel most energetic and alert, says MacGregor, and do less intense tasks during those times when you typically need a break. Always get a good night’s sleep, and when you face a long day, try to find opportunities for a nap.
FOCUS: Distraction is a modern-day pandemic. Consider the facts that mobile phone penetration in developed economies exceeds 100 percent, and that there are more mobile phones on the planet than people. The connectivity is great, but when it gives rise to multitasking and lack of focus that go with it, it can have a deleterious effect on performance.
“Focus,” explains MacGregor, “is essential for our well-being, our creativity, our learning ability, and the quality of our work.” To cultivate focus, he recommends that managers pursue mindfulness—a quality that is getting increasing attention in the workplace these days—through simple techniques such as breathing exercises and meditation.
FUEL: As much as I would prefer the Mad Men diet of caffeine, booze, and thick, juicy beef steaks, even I know that MacGregor is right when he says that managers need to “pay more attention to the things we eat to fuel our performance—in much the same way that an athlete does.”
You probably already know the drill: Pass up prepared foods in favor of whole foods, preferably self-prepared; consume smaller meals more often to bump up your metabolism; take a walk after you eat; and stay hydrated—with water, not wódka.
TRAIN: And last, but not least, MacGregor advises that managers make time for exercise, because “it’s excellent for health, fitness, mental clarity, relieving pressure, and time efficiency.” Time is a scarce commodity for most business leaders, so the author suggests adding high-intensity interval training sessions to your schedule—they produce the best physical and mental returns in the shortest time.
Queue it up: Sustaining Executive Performance: How the New Self-Management Drives Innovation, Leadership, and a More Resilient World Steven P. MacGregor