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Sweating It: Why Leaders Need to Exercise

Sharon McDowell-Larsen
Sharon McDowell-Larsen, PhD., is a Senior Associate and Exercise Physiologist with the Center for Creative Leadership and a former US Olympic Committee researcher. She is co-author of the 2008 book Managing Leadership Stress.

Want a business reason to turn off the computer, leave the office and hit the gym? How about news that regular exercise could make you a better leader?

A study from the Center for Creative Leadership found that executives who exercise are significantly more effective leaders than those who don't.

Using data from CEOs and other top executives collected over a span of 10 years, we compared two groups: those who were regular exercisers and those who were non-exercisers or sporadic exercisers. We cross-referenced the exercise status with "360-degree" assessment tools in which the individual executive is rated by colleagues on various leadership attributes.

We found that the exercisers rated significantly higher than their non-exercising peers on overall leadership effectiveness. They also scored higher on specific traits including: inspiring commitment, credibility, leading others, leading by example, energy, resilience and calmness.

Of course, the lives of executives are busy and stressful. Finding time for regular exercise is a challenge for most. Competing priorities, guilt over setting aside the time, long work hours, long commutes, and tiredness are common roadblocks.

For all of us, finding time to exercise takes effort, drive and creativity. You can start by setting a goal to do something active every day. You'll begin to pay attention to where your time goes and seek out slots for exercise. You may end up with 15 minutes on most days but find you can fit in 30 to 60 minutes two or three times a week.

Other strategies for maintaining regular fitness programs in spite of extremely busy schedules include:

1. Do more, more often. Find little ways to increase your activity throughout the day: walk while talking on the phone, take frequent stretch breaks, park at the far end of the lot, and take the stairs. Take advantage of an open slot in your calendar whenever it appears. Even ten minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise can boost mood and energy.

2. Keep track. Log your workouts: what you did and for how long. You'll be able to track progress, set goals and stay motivated.

3. Mix it up. Your stationary bike or treadmill may be convenient, but be sure to add variety. Physically, it is important to change your pace and intensity; mentally, you are likely to get bored if you always do the same thing. Go outdoors. Play a sport. Try a new exercise class. Go dancing.

4. Focus on exercise not size. Consistent exercise matters more than weight loss. The CCL study found that levels of body fat made no difference in how leaders were rated by their bosses, peers and direct reports. These findings don't negate the potential health detriments of excess body fat, but your first priority should be to make exercise a habit. Weight loss and other fitness goals can be addressed later with guidance from your doctor.

5. Get a trainer or exercise coach. A personal trainer or access to a trainer at your gym can be a great motivator and a time saver. The trainer can help you plan your exercise program, show you safe ways to intensify your workout, and keep you going when you want to quit or take it easy.

6. Take it on the road. Road warriors and occasional travelers can work in exercise with minimal effort. Pack a set of stretch cords for resistance training, a pair of running shoes and a swimsuit. Walk between airport terminals and gates when you have the time. Use stairs. Get smart about your hotel: Many have fitness centers, nearby gyms, or will even put a treadmill in your room.

7. Be patient. Many people start a program because of health concerns. At first, exercise is a chore. If you stick with it, the daily benefits will kick in. Executives who exercise regularly look forward to it, saying that it is a stress release, a great way to think of new ideas, to feel strong and flexible, to have stamina, and to have "time for me."

By Sharon McDowell-Larsen

 |  August 7, 2009; 4:07 PM ET |  Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

There may be a correlation between exercise and leadership, but that doesn't mean exercise helps you lead.

Perhaps effective leaders are also good managers of time -- meaning they can make time to exercise while less effective managers cannot.

Perhaps effective leaders have assembled a talented staff to support them -- meaning they are able to take time to exercise while less effective managers cannot.

Posted by: pkalina | August 12, 2009 10:11 AM

I'm 55 and have been getting 5 to 10 hour of exercise a week since I was in my mid-20s. I think it has helped me as a manager as I keep very high energy levels. A key aspect of exercise is that you have to achieve some reasonable level of fitness before it becomes enjoyable. For example [I'm a cyclist] If you only ride a bike occasionally, and at a very limited level, riding is a chore. If you're doing 125 miles a week, then you just can't wait to get out there and hammer.

Posted by: grumpyoldman1 | August 12, 2009 12:47 AM

Fenty is about effective as buying a poodle as a guard dog. The Washington Post can attempt to build him up, but his election hopes are falling fast! From the time he was a Council Member til he became Mayor, Fenty effectiveness was all about WORDS!

Posted by: ifordc | August 11, 2009 1:12 AM

Indeed, whatever we do, if we want to do it right and win we need to Exercise. Is very true for our military and that's why we're always at ''war.'' Fighting in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. isn't really a war. It's just exercising for when the big one happens (most likely Iran).

Posted by: ridagana | August 10, 2009 12:04 PM

Are you kidding me?? A photo of Fenty swimming?? The same guy that "hooked" his neighborhood pool up with a system heating(at taxpayer expense) and then doesn't let others use this same pool in the winter??

Posted by: miboard157 | August 10, 2009 11:44 AM

If you want examples of leadership and exercise, look at the U.S. Military. All levels of leadership are expected to maintain physical standards at all times. The theory of "Leading from the Front" is commonplace there.
The thing to take away from this article is that exercising puts the boss in a better mental state, increases energy and helps him/her relate to others. It's not just the boss that should exercise regularly, imagine how productive the office would be if working out was an option everyone took advantage of - and it was set up as part of your day... in the morning, perhaps 3x a week.... Just food for thought!
Have a nice day everyone!

Posted by: TimF2 | August 10, 2009 11:12 AM

Where does achohol play role inleadership, as most leaders drink and appear drunk in public settings.

Leaders that exercise are just that, many people exercise, however, when a leader exercises, it has to have some deeper significance, besides what the rest of us accomplish in out exercise. Leaders are just like everyone else, except the leader does not see themselves as equals to others, but better than others, which is the worst trait a leder can posess, Arrogance!


Posted by: patmatthews | August 10, 2009 10:11 AM

As for the Fenty blurb, i have nothing against his fitness and training but this guy is training for marathons and iron man competitions. These are not 30-60 minute breaks during the course of the work day. I think his exercise routine impacts his job readiness.

I have to agree with the prior poster, as I am currently on my journey down from 255.

Posted by: oknow1 | August 10, 2009 10:05 AM

Looks like you've got cause and effect reversed. I think it likely that those people who have the internal drive to exercise are by nature also more effective leaders. The exercise is one of their traits, not the cause of their leadership.

Posted by: martintomsal | August 10, 2009 8:48 AM

Ms Larsen,
I must take issue with the following:

1. exercise before weight loss?
Excessive weight combined with strain to Cardio Vascular System (unconditioned)
is probably a high risk move.

2. I believe changes in diet effect mood, stamina, bodyshape much faster then strict focus on exercise.

3. Doctors,that like giving B-12 shots shouldn't be consulted in fitness or anything else.

4. High intensity trainers often set a pace that can discourage people. I suggest a club that has "progressive training".

For the record,
I was 250 pounds, size 42 waist, size 2XX shirt, heart rumblings, bad knees.

I went green, cut carb,processed sugars, protein, alcohol, pills (3 prescriptions).

Got as low as 174.size 32 waist, small shirt. 4 months.
Re-introduced carb, sugars and some protein. Size 34 waist , med shirt, 190 pounds.

Time to run
and perhaps racquet ball, swimming is a winter activity.

Thank you Leadership!


Posted by: James210 | August 9, 2009 9:37 AM

They are getting exercise just pushing their luck. I need to go and push the lawnmower around a bit later. Things keep growing.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 8, 2009 10:45 AM

A fit representative of a company often gives the impression that the company is the same.
A wonderful edge in selling.

It's interesting, I've done competition studies and fitness or lack of ,was a weakness I was able to capitalize on.

And, for those business exec's looking too truly save money and find the lost treasures,
Lower health care costs,
higher production,

The challenge is to get a company to think long term strategy,
with regards to the health of employees.


Posted by: James210 | August 8, 2009 9:11 AM

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