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  • Neil Kilby

Fitness & Climbing the Corporate Ladder Without Losing Breath

When Tom Corley set about researching the habits of self-made millionaires for his book Change Your Habits, Change Your Life, he uncovered a telling commonality. 76% of the subjects interviewed stated they exercised every day.

That may not surprise some of you. However, it is far from the norm. Researchers at Penn State and the University of Maryland found the average American is physically active for just two hours per week. Indeed, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) found only 23% of Americans get enough exercise. So, whilst 76% of the millionaires surveyed who exercise may not raise your eyebrow, their commitment is not normal...and just may hold part of the key to their success.

So - do you need to exercise to be successful? Well, it will undoubtedly help and there’s a whole heap of science from really clever people (you wonder if they exercise or not?) to prove it. What’s more, the link between exercise and achievement starts before you even enter the workplace.

Lifting weights & Lifting Grades

In the 2013/2014 academic year, researchers at North Carolina State University looked into the recreational activities of some 20,000 students. They discovered students can be lazy. Hardly beggars belief does it. This might though - only 1.4% of them took part in recreational exercise at least 5 times per week. So, students (at North Carolina State anyway) might be a bit lazier than you’d expect. Here’s the kicker...if they want to increase their chances of graduation, it’s time to get off the sofa and stop the game of beer pong. Even if for only an hour per week. That’s because the research found that for every extra hour of exercise, their odds of graduating increased by 50%. Plus, the more they exercise the higher the grades achieved. For each hour of extra exercise per week, GPA went up 0.6 on the 4.0 scale.

Remember This

Behind these findings is the link between exercise and memory. The Harvard Medical School Health Blog points to a study conducted by the University of British Columbia. The study found that exercise can actually change the brain, boosting the size of the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that deals with verbal memory and learning. However, not all exercise had the same effect. For the changes to be noted, aerobic exercise was needed. That means getting sweaty and increasing your heart rate to match the tempo of some banging drum ‘n’ bass. Resistance training, balance and muscle toning did not yield the same results.

The effect of exercise on memory is arguably even more pronounced as you age. This is because it reduces insulin resistance and inflammation, at the same time as stimulating growth factors. These are the chemicals in your brain that affect the health of brain cells. Indeed, numerous studies have indicated that people who exercise have increased volume in the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex. These fancy bits of brain control both thinking and memory. So, the arguments for exercising regularly are starting to become rather compelling. This continues as you enter the workforce.

Working Out at Work

A joint study between the University of Bristol and Leeds Metropolitan University looked into the effect of ‘working out at work’. This was specific insomuch as they were looking at the effect of exercise during the working day, rather than outside of it. Of course, for many the working day involves pretty much every waking moment so the findings likely apply regardless of the confines of 9 to 5 (if that even exists still). And the findings were telling. For employees who visited the gym, their day at work was better managed, more productive and they reported an increase in positive mood, meaning less arguments in meetings. So, they were happier and more effective. This could be why of the 100 best companies to work for in England, 48% of them provided gym access (Sunday Times, 2006) . These companies reaped the benefits of the feel-good factor associated with working out and it made them better places to work and employees more productive.

By now you’ve studiously exercised at university to get better grades. Your habit has continued as you entered the workforce, so you’re more productive and happier. But will that really boost your career?

Happiness & Influence

In his excellent book, Rebel Ideas, Mathew Syed cited work completed by the British Anthropologist, A R Radcliffe Brown. The observations on how individuals attain influence are quite fascinating. In particular, that for an individual who has “...generosity and kindness, and freedom from bad temper...inevitably acquires a position of influence in the community”. This can be rather telling in the workplace when it comes to gaining respect and influence through deference. It follows that the one deferred to (unless seen as a threat...that happens) places themselves in a favourable position for advancement.

So, if exercise can improve your mood you are increasing your chances of promotion. And it does stand to reason really...when you go to a party you’re not attracted to the grumpy urchin in the corner, sporting a furrowed brow and curled up lips. No, you want to head to where the laughter is and the person who is smiling and radiating positivity. Work isn’t a popularity contest...but it can help. On a more serious note, the Word Economic Forum analysed a number of studies and in August 2018 concluded that “happiness precedes and often leads to career success.''

Executive Level Exercise

Congratulations - you’ve been promoted. All your hard work and positivity has paid off. Now you just need to keep it up despite the ever increasing workload and demands on your time. Well, in his article ‘How Successful Leaders Attain Superhuman Energy Before Most People Wake Up’, Carmine Gallo writes “Successful leaders carve out time for daily exercise because they have no choice”. He goes onto describe how Apple CEO, Tim Cook, once stepped off an 18 hour plane ride (where he worked most of the time), took a shower, then went onto a marathon session of meetings lasting 12 hours. Of course, I doubt Tim Cook travels economy and has a crying baby on the seat row in front of him but it’s still pretty impressive.

So, there’s no time to relax and think you’ve ‘made it’. You need all the energy, drive and mental clarity that comes from exercise to keep up with the demanding schedule that normally accompanies career success. But what happens when the ravishes of time start to rear their ugly head? As wrinkles start to appear, the hair turns grey and your trouser waistband gets ever higher? Well, exercise has the answer for that too (apart from the rising waistband that is).

Squat Down to Keep Brain Power Up

It’s been long known that regular exercise can help fight sarcopenia (muscle ageing). It seems it can also help keep you sharp. A study released in 2016 (‘Kicking Back Cognitive Ageing: Leg Power Predicts Cognitive Ageing after Ten Years in Older Female Twins’) looked into cognitive change over an extended time period. Importantly, the research centred on twins, meaning common genetics and shared early life environments, so as to isolate exercise as a main contributing factor to any differences. The results showed greater muscle fitness is associated with improed cognitive ageing, the twin with greater leg power effectively slowing the ageing of their brain when compared to the twin with reduced leg power. In short, squat down to keep your brain power up.

If you’ve got this far...well done, you can retire happy and successful. What’s more, you’ll be fit and healthy enough to enjoy an active retirement. That means playing bad golf.

How to sum up? ain’t rocket science. But there is a lot of science involved. All of it points to the importance of continued exercise for a myriad of reasons; physical, mental and emotional. No real downside then, even if it doesn’t work.

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