Personal Best: Fitness Training for Career Success

By Gina DeMillo Wagner |

What do Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps and a Fortune 500 CEO have in common? At first glance, not much. But look closer. Today’s corporate world isn’t all that different from the sporting world: It’s fiercely competitive, mentally and physically demanding, and it requires constant preparation in order to succeed.

Yet, there’s one crucial distinction between athletes and corporate workers: Athletes train rigorously for their relatively brief moments of competition. Executives, on the other hand, have to be in top form all day, every day — in the boardroom, during negotiations and strategy meetings, and when planning budgets and meeting deadlines. Unfortunately, few train for these relentless demands.

“For many world-class athletes, their salaries and endorsements are dependent on positive results at specific events,” notes Jack Groppel, PhD, coauthor of(John Wiley & Sons, 2000) and cofounder of the Human Performance Institute. “They tend to manage their energy around those peaks in performance.” As a result, athletes are acutely aware of the roles that fitness, rest, spiritual and emotional health, nutrition, and self-improvement play in giving them a winning edge.

Most businesspeople, on the other hand, perform the same tasks day in and day out, ticking off meeting after meeting. They strive to squeeze as much productivity as they can out of their workdays — waking early and staying up late, downing cup after cup of coffee and relying on vending-machine fare to stay upright and moving. So, when it comes time to really shine — during a presentation, sales meeting, or when gunning for a promotion — these professionals often come up short.

“Though we’re expected to perform at our best every moment of every day,” Groppel explains, “no one can sustain that over time.” Eventually, as we try to maintain the breakneck pace, we become more reactive, frazzled, exhausted and, without the specific goals and positive feedback that athletes receive in competition, we can become downright paranoid about the quality of our work. (For more about how unhealthy habits undermine mental performance, see “Fit for Success.”)

Rather than automatically heading down that fast track to nowhere, we should begin thinking of our work in the same way a professional athlete thinks of his or her sport, Groppel suggests. In other words, what if we took a hard look at our sources of energy and prepared for each workday the way a pro athlete prepares for the demands of competition? What if we actually trained for our careers?

“Without a doubt, the higher your level of fitness, the greater the capacity you have to perform your job, and the greater capacity you will have to deal with the demands in your life,” explains Groppel.

An ever-growing body of fitness experts, physiologists and psychologists concur. In his book,(Little, Brown & Co., 2008), John Ratey, MD, draws on case studies and long-term research to discuss how physical exercise causes the brain to grow new connections and get sharper. Studies conducted by the American Medical Association and others suggest that executives who exercise regularly tend to be rated more highly by coworkers on leadership-strength measures than those who don’t.

“That makes sense, considering exercise improves your memory and problem-solving skills and, as you get older, gives you a lower risk of dementia,” notes fitness guru Kathy Smith, author of(Meredith, 2008), who recently toured North America speaking to companies about the importance of exercise in the workplace.

In addition, studies show that good fitness bolsters immunity and brightens mood, reducing the number of sick days among workers. “Regular exercise boosts your serotonin levels and thus your mood, which is what Prozac does,” says Smith. “If you’re in a good mood, you’re going to be more patient and think more clearly.” The physiological benefits don’t end there, either, adds Groppel. When you eat well and exercise regularly, every system in your body runs more efficiently. (For more on exercise’s effect on overall health, see “How Exercise Heals” in the November 2007 archives.)

Unfortunately, getting fit is rarely at the top of our professional to-do list. “Our physical fitness is often the first area that gets ignored or overlooked when we are faced with high levels of demand at work,” says Catherine McCarthy, PhD, senior vice president of The Energy Project, which promotes the idea that successful leaders must manage energy, rather than time, to sustain high performance. “If you don’t have enough energy in your tank — or it isn’t the right quality of energy — you won’t be able to bring your unique skills and talents to life personally or professionally.”

So, if you’re overworked and low on energy, how do you begin placing more emphasis on fitness? McCarthy explains that energy can be derived from many different sources, including physical vitality (through exercise, rest and proper nutrition), spiritual energy (from feeling connected to nature, God or something bigger than yourself), mental focus and emotional energy (from meaningful relationships and having a clear sense of purpose). To perform at your best, you need to cultivate motivation from one or more of these sources. (For more on managing energy, see “Energy Crisis.”)

Take Megan Esteves, 24, a PR account executive living in New York. Her high-octane career meant that exercise often dropped to the bottom of her to-do list. “In any client-service industry, it’s easy to forget the bigger picture and instead drive yourself crazy focusing on every little detail and circumstance you can’t control,” she explains. As a result, Esteves noticed her stress levels rise, which in turn hampered her work performance.

So, she began exercising on her most stressful days. “After nine or 10 hours behind a desk, my mind and body need a reprieve,” she says. By prioritizing fitness, she noticed she was calmer, more focused and more in control of her workday. Esteves also credits her training for recently helping her brainstorm new ideas, boost her confidence, and land a new, high-profile position in her field. “I get some of my best ideas and problem-solving strategies when I’m running through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It’s my time to remind myself why I’m in New York working my butt off and what I’m trying to achieve.”

Whether you’re a high-powered executive, a midlevel manager, or you’re just starting your first internship, chances are you’ll encounter a variety of challenging scenarios daily. Here, Groppel and other experts walk us through some typical events in a busy professional’s life and explain how adopting the training mentality of a “corporate athlete” can help you create a winning situation:

THE EVENT – Getting to Work on Time

Probably logged fewer than seven hours’ sleep. Drags self from bed and immediately begins multitasking. Skips breakfast and downs a cup of coffee en route to the office.

Eats a healthy dinner and goes to bed early the night before. Wakes early, feeling rested. Eats a healthy breakfast and mentally prepares for the day.

“In the corporate world, taking time for sleep and recovery is considered a sign of weakness,” notes Groppel. But to athletes, adequate rest and relaxation is essential to their performance. In order to experience peaks in energy, you must sleep at least seven to eight hours every night.

When you wake, don’t hit the ground running, which can trigger a fight-or-flight physiological response and lead to burnout. Instead, ease into your day. Creating smooth transitions from rest to activity will increase your performance in the long run, Groppel says, because you’ll more efficiently access all your body’s energy and mental resources. To that end, fuel your body with a protein-filled breakfast, drink adequate water (your body is a bit dehydrated after a long sleep) and mentally prepare for the tasks ahead. Practice some deep breathing, do some yoga or go for a brief jog, and visualize yourself succeeding at the tasks of the day.

THE EVENT – The Never-Ending Task List

Completes one task and immediately moves on to the next. In fact, she’s already thinking about and preparing for the next before the first is completed. By the end of the day, she’s mentally and physically exhausted, barely able to focus or keep her eyes open.

Has the stamina to perform well during a hectic day by taking mini-breaks between tasks.

Groppel suggests you consider your day as an interval-training workout, and treat back-to-back meetings or items on your long to-do list as high-intensity bouts. “Then, when you exit a meeting, treat the time before your next task as a recovery period,” he says. “Take two minutes to disengage. Step outside or go to a completely different floor in your building — take the stairs to get your blood flowing — and think about something other than work.” Visualize your family, what you want to have for dinner, or dream about your upcoming vacation, he suggests. After those two minutes are up, reengage and start the next task. This will break the linear pattern in your day and allow your performance to peak again during the next session. To keep your body and mind sharp, do actual interval workouts — running stairs, group-fitness classes or cycling — a few days each week. It doesn’t take much — several studies in recent years found that just 20 minutes of intense aerobic exercise three times each week will yield physical and mental benefits.

THE EVENT – An Important Presentation

Jams on PowerPoint till 3 a.m. Rushes to the presentation, glancing at notes on the way.

Completes his preparation and practices a few times a day or two in advance, gleaning good ideas along the way. Practices visualization for peak performance.

“A great corporate athlete has several effective preparation rituals,” explains Groppel. A physical ritual might include deep breathing to relax, or climbing a few flights of stairs to clear your mind and get some feel-good endorphins flowing. An emotional ritual could include reading a humorous anecdote or talking to a friend. For a mental ritual, try reviewing your outline one last time and then visualizing a successful presentation. A spiritual ritual might include a few minutes of meditation or prayer, or simply looking at a picture of your family and remembering why you work.

These rituals not only help you feel more calm and prepared, but they also keep your brain sharp. A 2007 New York Academy of Sciences study found that meditation and visualization enhance cognition and brain longevity. (For more, see “Build a Better Brain.”) Smith also recommends regular strength training, including yoga or Pilates, because, she says, this type of conditioning “boosts confidence, improves posture and gives you more energy.”

Keep in mind that the energy you project during your presentation depends, in part, on your overall level of well-being. The vitality that results from a combination of exercise, nutrition and sleep simply cannot be faked. “Together,” says Smith, “they help you project the image of a strong, capable and centered professional.”

THE EVENT – A Stressful Conversation With your Boss

Loses sleep worrying about the conversation — whether it’s pitching a new idea, asking for a raise or receiving feedback about a recent project — and feels nervous and irritable in anticipation of a difficult tug-of-war.

Knows that self-confidence is a skill you have to practice, as you would any other. Prepares for the conversation mentally, emotionally and physically.

Jim Loehr, EdD, a performance psychologist and cofounder of the Human Performance Institute, addresses stressful conversations in his book(Free Press, 2007). He suggests taking some quiet time to fully process and own your story (for example, why you deserve a raise) so that you can communicate it clearly and confidently. Also, imagine what your boss’s story might be, Loehr advises. Write down both stories and then highlight the main points you’ll want to emphasize when you meet. If necessary, take those talking points with you into the meeting.

Meditating, going for a brisk walk, or talking with your spouse or a friend who bolsters your self-confidence are other great ways to prepare, experts say. You can even practice the conversation with someone else first.

“This situation is another opportunity to use your pre-event rituals to relax and prepare,” adds Groppel. “Determine whatyou have to do to get the result you desire.”

THE EVENT – Hitting Deadlines

Grudgingly burns the midnight oil, but resents every minute of it. Experiences burnout because of a lack of time- and stress-management skills.

Considers the big picture and embraces momentary stress as a potentially positive challenge. Sets boundaries and reprioritizes demands as necessary while always keeping an eye on the big picture. Thanks to good self-care, has the physical and emotional stamina to weather challenging times.

“If you’re truly connected to the mission of your job, and you believe you’re a part of something bigger than yourself, then going the extra mile isn’t difficult,” Groppel explains. The greatest performers in life know they have to go above and beyond expectations to succeed. But, they do the extra work because they believe in it, not because they get paid for it. And they reprioritize projects as necessary to avoid depletion.

It also helps to remember that not all stress is detrimental, he adds. There are times when stress can be a strong motivator. It can wake you up from complacency and inspire you to work harder, perform better and set new goals. The key is learning how tomanage stress so it doesn’t get the best of you.

Consider the lessons of sports such as soccer, softball or basketball, where you must be responsive and adaptable to meet both your needs and the needs of your entire team. You rely on coaches to give you pointers and teammates to support you (and vice versa). You develop a sort of mental toughness that translates well to stressful situations at work.

Sure, when deadlines loom, you may have to skip your usual workout, but don’t let that derail you from your overall fitness goals. To avoid taking work-related stress home with you, spend some time outdoors — even if it’s just 10 minutes — walking after work, or doing a brief circuit-training workout. As soon as your schedule allows, get back to the gym. You’ll clear your head and benefit from the endorphins of exercise.

One final step on the road to corporate success, Groppel says, is to hone your sense of purpose, set some goals and stay focused on the small victories. Even successful athletes need occasional pep talks, and you can do that for yourself by writing a mission statement, journaling, and creating a vision board with images and words that represent what you hope to achieve: physically, professionally and spiritually.

Writing a mission statement isn’t as daunting as it sounds, he notes. It simply conveys your reason for being, what drives you and where you want to be several years down the road. The constant visual reminder will encourage and motivate you much like a coach guides an athlete.

And while you may not be wearing a pro sports jersey or training for victory on the field, devoting a similar level of dedication to winning at work can result in another kind of victory — a satisfying and rewarding professional life.

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