Fit for Success

Whether you work for a living or live for your work, managing your physical health and fitness may be more critical to your career than you realized. Find out why the shape you’re in can make or break your success.

You know that fitness guru on morning TV? The one who’s made a career of sculpting the bodies of the rich and famous? Well muscled and well meaning he may be, but he doesn’t seem to grasp that no matter how much you’d love to define your triceps, you’ve got a real job to do. A job that sometimes sucks up more than 50 hours a week, a job you’ve got to be at by 8 a.m. sharp – make that 7 if you’re bucking for a promotion. But first you have to inhale some breakfast, shower, dress, maybe pack up the kids for daycare, swing by the dry cleaners, and commute to the office in time for a big meeting.

So, no. Sorry, Mr. Track Pants, no time for triceps today. Or for the treadmill, for that matter. And that 6 p.m. yoga class you were thinking about trying out? Not tonight, friend. Looks like yoga is gonna have to wait.

No matter how good your intentions, if you’re serious about your career (and particularly if you’ve got a family), your fitness commitments may be a little wobbly of late. You tell yourself it’s temporary. OK, so the exercise program you started in January has been largely obliterated by first-quarter business objectives. But at least your frenetic schedule and workaholic output means you are headed for success, right?

Well, actually … no. In fact, it turns out that sacrificing your health and fitness priorities may wind up doing your career as much damage as it does your body.

Weighting on a Promotion?

Among the various and sundry problems that face the fitness-challenged professional, perhaps none poses a more immediate and overt career threat than weight gain. While many studies demonstrate that small amounts of excess weight needn’t negatively affect your health or fitness, the fact remains that being visibly, significantly overweight can very negatively affect your job prospects.

Is that fair or right? No. Is it a real problem? Yes, indeed. Numerous academic and workplace studies conducted in recent decades point to the pervasiveness of workplace discrimination against overweight individuals. A compilation of studies published in Personnel Psychology journal in 1999 concludes that “overweight people are systematically discriminated against in all facets of employment, from applying to hiring to firing.”

The author of that article, Mark Roehling, PhD, associate professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at Michigan State University, asserts that weight discrimination is more common than discrimination on the basis of race, gender or many other characteristics.

Moreover, Roehling’s article points out that, once hired, overweight people – especially women – may find it much harder to get ahead. Several studies suggest that they are likely to be paid less (sometimes thousands less, annually) than their leaner peers.

In a 2005 executive-job Web site survey of more than 1,000 executives earning more than $100,000 a year, 75 percent of registered survey respondents asserted that good physical fitness is “critical for career success at the executive level.” The same percentage characterized excess weight as a “serious career impediment,” according to who conducted the survey.

The fact that such impressions are so widely held may explain why so many employers are surprisingly open about their weight-discriminatory biases. And while some states are beginning to legislate against such discrimination, to date, very few have laws expressly forbidding it.

It’s important to note, though, that body-based success factors are by no means limited to concerns of weight and size. And when it comes to matters of the body, it’s not just the potential of other people’s prejudices working against you.

Your body is the source of the energy and stamina that get you through the day. When you let your work priorities run roughshod over your health and wellness, ? the resulting impacts to your health and vitality may render you less energetic, less effective, less productive – and, potentially, less promotable.

So if you can’t get yourself to the gym for the benefit of your body, you might want to do it for the benefit of your ambition. If that seems impossible right now, read on for some perspective that just might change your mind.

Diminishing Returns

Even the most devoted professionals will suffer if they too-exclusively devote their lives to unrelenting career demands. The main problem? Stress.

When you don’t allow time for activities that help you resist and recover from stress (like exercise and relaxation), you open yourself up to a plethora of mental and physical ills. And ironically, they can have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the very career you are trying so heroically to advance.

  • Under stress, your immunity suffers. And there’s nothing like missing a few days of work to mess with your agenda.
  • Under stress, your energy system gets drained, making it tough for you to stay focused for long. So much for that big presentation you’ve got scheduled at 4 p.m.
  • Under stress, you may become short- tempered, reactive and impatient. Your emotional intelligence (EQ) may plummet as a result, and so may your personal effectiveness. Experts suggest that EQ – basically, your emotional skill set – is twice as important as IQ in predicting career success. Team-building, anyone?
  • And, of course, under stress, most of us start looking and feeling like hell. We may put on weight or become gaunt, develop dark circles and ashen skin, take on a wild-eyed-desperate or just-plain-exhausted countenance. And the next thing you know, we look a lot less like a person to be put in charge of anything.

Sure, it may seem like you’re getting a lot done and increasing your competitive edge by skipping workouts in favor of long hours at the office, but it’s important to recognize that this strategy may wind up backfiring. At some point, most workaholics reach a point of diminishing returns. If you’ve already reached that point, you may not be impressing your boss nearly as much as you think. And you may be costing your body more than you know.

Conversely, by working in even a couple of quick workouts a week, getting adequate nutrition to fuel your high-test work habits, and claiming just a little more time for rest and relaxation, you could improve your energy, resiliency and productivity. You could look and feel better, think clearer and faster, take more in stride.

As a result, you just might wind up creating the impression that you are in control of your life, that you are proactive, practical and on top of things. Such attributes go over well in demanding workplaces and make it easier for you to consistently bring the full force of your professional abilities to bear – without diminishing anything, including yourself.

Worth noting: A 2002 study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology reported that executives who exercised regularly were rated higher on leadership-strength measures by their fellow workers than were nonexercising executives.

Fitness Is Golden

You know the story of the goose that laid the golden egg, right? The goose that the greedy farmer eventually killed in an effort to get more eggs, faster? Think of yourself as that goose – and as that farmer.

If you want all the golden career eggs you can get, you’ve got to be smart about it. Look at exercise as a means of building up your egg-producing machinery so it can reliably produce more and better eggs. Think of overwork as an axe. You could use that axe to temporarily increase the egg harvest, but you will almost certainly destroy your own egg-laying machinery in the process.

Getting regular exercise is a critical factor in helping your body rise to mental and physical challenges that could otherwise drag you under. Physical exercise helps you manage your energy and moods more effectively, so that you can handle more with greater ease, and experience less stress to begin with (see “Good Stress/ Bad Stress,” available in the June 2005 archives at lifetimefitness.com/magazine).

Being fit increases your ability to handle periods of high-intensity output. In fact, squeezing in time for a workout may directly boost your productivity. In 2005, researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University in the U.K. learned that 65 percent of workers who exercised during their workdays reported improvements in time management, tolerance, mental performance and ability to meet deadlines upon their return.

The simple act of scheduling and keeping your fitness appointments also lends your days (and your life) some balanced structure. That in itself can help you keep work challenges in perspective and your stress levels in check.

Your Mental Game

Many of you probably know that chronic low-grade stress raises our risk of heart disease and high blood pressure and that it also leads to excessive storage of abdominal or visceral fat, which is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancers. We also know that none of these afflictions bode well for our professional prospects over the long haul.

What fewer of us realize is that chronic, low-level stress can also impair our memory and compromise our ability to make clear decisions, which can directly affect our job performance here and now.

Constant high levels of stress result in the release of a too-steady supply of the hormone cortisol. “Studies show that … cortisol will impair the ability to form and recall memories,” says Bruce McEwen, chronic-stress expert and author of The End of Stress as We Know It (Dana Press, 2004). Excessive cortisol not only impairs the portion of the ? brain that stores memories, McEwen points out, but it also appears to diminish mental clarity through other physiological pathways.

HeartMath, a California-based stress-reduction research and consulting institute, has determined that the stress associated with frustration, for example, temporarily impairs cognition by disrupting heart-rate variability (HRV), the gradual speeding and slowing of the time between your heartbeats. HRV is healthy and normal – a critical, yet often overlooked, functional indicator. It reflects an ongoing, wave-like oscillation between the assertion of the sympathetic nervous system, which increases respiration and heart rate, and its parasympathetic counterpart, which does the opposite.

When you are frustrated, your heart rhythm becomes chaotic and irregular, which indicates the nervous system’s activity is out of sync. This slows your decision-making, decreases your performance on standardized memory tasks and drastically diminishes your cerebral cortex function. Numerous studies have shown that frustration temporarily inhibits the function of the cortex, which makes up 80 percent of the brain.

To counteract this effect, HeartMath recommends stress-reduction techniques that incorporate appreciation-based mindfulness and breathing. Getting regular, moderate cardiovascular exercise is another way to strengthen your cardiovascular and nervous systems in ways that make you more resilient and resistant to mental-emotional stressors.

Exercise also helps sharpen the brain over the long term. A 2004 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that six months of aerobic activity improved older adults’ ability to concentrate and produced beneficial brain changes observable on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Time Trades

Once you decide to exercise, you face a more vexing problem: When? You’ll have to find the time somewhere, most likely directly before, during or after your workday. Not to worry. While leaving your desk early, arriving a bit late or jetting out over lunch may seem like a net debit from your productivity account, the fact is, you probably sacrifice more productivity every day you skip the gym. And if a lack of health and fitness is markedly eroding your effectiveness (or increasing your absenteeism), your employer would probably be glad to see you make the tradeoff.

“The reason people think they can’t cut into their work to exercise is that they can’t see the net benefit,” says Steve Prentice, author of Cool Time: A Hands-on Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time (John Wiley & Sons, 2005) and president of Bristall Morgan, a time-management and professional-development consultancy in Toronto and New York. “All they can see is the big hole in their day if they leave to go to the gym.”

What you have to remember is that exercise brings you all sorts of gains. “Exercise heightens your sense of well-being, improves your mood and allows you to sleep better,” he notes. “This makes it an investment in productivity. It’s like stopping at the gas station to fill up: It will slow you down momentarily, but it will further your trip on the whole.”

Jack Groppel, PhD, exercise physiologist and author of The Corporate Athlete (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), agrees. And, he asserts, the corporate go-getter must figure out how to fit exercise around his or her work hours without apology, guilt or reservation. That can be tricky.

“The real challenge lies in the fact that at the end of the day, people don’t feel like they have permission to leave work and work out,” he says. To remedy that, he notes, one’s “story” needs to change. “Most professionals have a story they buy into,” Groppel explains. “Usually it’s one that says ‘the business needs me and can’t function without me.’ This kind of story may give meaning to your life, but it keeps you from changing. It tells you that you have no choice.”

Ladder-Climbing Lessons

The first step toward making different choices may be shifting your beliefs, but at some point, you’ll also need to adjust your work habits. And you may be a tougher customer to sell on this adjustment than your supervisor is. Even workers who set their own hours often stay glued to their desks far longer than their bosses (or anyone in his right mind) would expect. The trouble is, in many cases, the longer you’re willing to stay, the more reason there will be for you to do so.

“Work expands to fit the available time,” says Prentice. “There’s always more work that can be done. That’s why writing your workouts into your calendar is so important. If you put that commitment into your schedule, your coworkers will get used to it, and they’ll be clear about when you are and aren’t available. They’ll figure out how to get what they need from you.”

Workers on the clock can ask their employers for a longer lunch break or permission to stay late on some afternoons in exchange for leaving early on others. “Negotiate a 90-minute lunch with a 5:30 departure time, and your afternoon will be much more productive because there’s oxygen in your blood,” Prentice suggests.

To improve your productivity, dedicate blocks of time to either focusing on work or dealing with time thieves like phone calls and email. “Every time you get distracted with an email, it takes five to 15 minutes to get back into a focused mindset,” he says.

Other timesaving tips include keeping your office clean so you can find things quickly, limiting meetings to an hour and starting on time, and navigating daily hallway conversations with purpose and control. Let people know you have only five minutes to talk. “If you say it in a friendly way, people will accept it,” Prentice says.

The most important tactic in your pro-fitness strategy plan, however, is remaining conscious of the fundamental role your personal well-being plays in fulfilling your career ambitions: It gives you the foundational strength, stamina and resiliency you need to give your career (and virtually every other part of your life) your very best.

When you think about it that way, perhaps in some small way, tending to your triceps could play a part in helping you climb the corporate ladder. And maybe – just maybe – that fitness guru on TV has a better grasp on reality than you’ve been giving him credit for.

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Paul Scott is a Minnesota-based freelance writer.

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