In 2007, I was at the front of the oncoming credit crisis: Working on Wall Street, overseeing interest rate risk and trades at one of the nation’s largest investment banks. I was growing weary of my job – I felt stressed out, uninspired and unhealthy.
So I laced up my running shoes and hit the road.
Seven years later I’m helping run a company I co-founded, taking care of a pair of newborn twins with my wife and am in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life. While others may view spending an hour or 90 minutes each day on physical fitness as a luxury, I’ve come to see it as a necessity.
I’m not alone. “Executives who exercise are significantly more effective leaders than those who don’t,” according to research from the Center of Creative Leadership (CCL). “Time invested in regular exercise, even if it means spending less time at work, is correlated with higher ratings of leadership effectiveness.”
CCL performed a 10-year study comparing executives who regularly exercise with those who don’t (or only hit the gym sporadically) and compared it with 360-degree reviews of their work performance with their colleagues. “We found that the exercisers rated significantly higher than their non-exercising peers on overall leadership effectiveness,” writes Dr. Sharon McDowell-Larsen, co-author of the study. “They also scored higher on specific traits including: inspiring commitment, credibility, leading others, leading by example, energy, resilience and calmness.”
I know I couldn’t effectively deal with stress on multiple fronts without dedicating time to my physical well-being. (And I am guessing many of you couldn’t either.)
Here are the steps I took that helped me run marathons and run my company.
Choose a practice that’s right for you. You wouldn’t choose to start a business in an area where you have no expertise. Similarly, start an exercise regimen that best fits for interests. When I was looking to get back in shape, I chose running, because it was the easiest to fit into the unpredictable, 24-7 demands of working on Wall Street. I didn’t need to sign up for a class nor did I need special equipment other than a good pair of running shoes.
The most important benefit for your work is doing something that will get you out of your head – which is often just what your head needs to get the creative juices flowing. I can’t tell you how many times an idea for NerdWallet has popped into my head during a run.
Question your assumptions. This wasn’t my first foray into running. I ran cross country during high school but quit my senior year after injuries and problems with my knees. I went to doctors and tried different orthotics, but at the end of the day, the experience left me with the assumption that I’m injury prone.
I had to question that assumption when I became determined to start running again in 2007. To free my body, I applied my mind – doing diligent research on proper training and injury prevention. Turned out my knee problem was a run-of-the-mill issue for runners that smart training helps sidestep.
What assumptions are keeping you from a physical practice? Perhaps you think you’re uncoordinated, or no good at a sport you’ve admired from afar? Maybe you are haunted by painful memories from school gym classes? Question the assumptions holding exercise at bay and good things will come your way.
And questioning notions of yourself helps shake up assumptions you may also hold about running your company. Sometimes the best way to make a quantum leap in your work is to step back and ask yourself, “Is my thinking right here? Am I approaching this from the wrong direction?”
Take it slow. “No pain, no gain,” is not a good aphorism when beginning an exercise regimen. Better to think “slow and steady wins the race.” Believe it or not, this is biggest difficulty you’ll face when getting back into shape.
Why? Your cardiovascular system improves much faster than your tissue and muscles, so you’re going to feel better faster than the physical improvement of your legs and feet. It creates a false confidence in your ability and a desire to push yourself harder than you’re ready.
Like when running a startup, sometimes the best thing you can do slow down: Business is a marathon, not a sprint. And sticking with a physical practice teaches a trait sorely undervalued in the go-go startup culture: Patience. Do the footwork, and the results will come.
Compete against yourself. I run in competitions, but I don’t say I’m competitive. There’s always the reward of beating yourself by improving on my times.Keep your goals and milestones personal. And keep it fun.
Competing against yourself nurtures resiliency, a key attribute that helps entrepreneurs survive the brutal contest of running a business. The competition will beat you time and again. Obstacles – often outside your control – will fall across your path. But focus on what you can control and progress is inevitable.
Create a virtuous circle. The greatest thing about a physical practice is the knock-on effect in other areas in your life. If you exercise, you automatically find yourself becoming more conscious of what you put in your body. I eat much better and keep well hydrated.
The CCL study on executive exercise found that “levels of body fat made no difference in how leaders are rated by their bosses, peers and direct reports.” In other words, consistent exercise matters more than weight loss. Colleagues respond not to a “slimmer you,” but to the energy, focus and mental agility you display that comes with regular exercise.
The most important benefit for me is improved energy levels. One of the things that stood out in my 360-degree reviews is that I clearly take on a lot of stress – I’m a high-strung person and tend to be anxious. At the same time I’m described as consistently high-energy. I attribute that to my running regimen.
Talent is no substitute for hard work. What I love about running is it’s not something where you have to be naturally good at it – you put in the work and you get better.
I honestly believe anyone could run a marathon if they put in the work. That’s a philosophy that’s also helps improve my work. If I don’t accept it’s out of reach, I can get it or, at least, I can get close enough.
This November I’m running the Quad Dipsea hill race for the first time. Seven years ago if you told me I would do that, I’d think you were crazy, like saying I’d help start a company.
Now I just view it as an exciting goal – and wonder what vistas I’ll see ahead of me after I complete that last mile.