Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence.
– John F. Kennedy
Growing up, I was a pretty healthy kid. My parents did a great job of feeding me well. They never let me eat too much junk food, soda, or candy. We stayed active, too. During high school, I was on the swim team, and our family did a LOT of walking while exploring South America, where we lived for seven years.
Then came college, where I discovered beer and pizza. I still remember the look on Mom’s face when I came home after that first semester, appearing somewhat rounder than when I left a few months earlier. Maintaining an acceptable weight and overall good level of fitness became a struggle for the next thirty years, when I was frequently twenty to thirty pounds above my optimum weight.
During that time, being overweight impacted my personal and professional leadership. It hurt my self-confidence, lowered my energy level, and complicated my life. Clothes didn’t fit right, so business travel and presentations took more planning.
I would try diets from time to time, but they were not well-planned and lacking in key nutrients, so the weight came back soon after I reached my goal. When I married my vegetarian wife, I became a “pescatarian” (including fish in a vegetarian diet), but, unfortunately, mushroom pizza is also vegetarian, so it was not easy to keep weight off. The best thing I did was to exercise regularly, especially during the last five or ten years. I even ran a full marathon to check one goal off my bucket list, but instead of taking advantage of the training to lose weight, I relished the fact that I could eat a whole pizza at night without gaining more weight! During times of extreme stress, even the exercise went out the window, further aggravating my weight problem.
Then, my friend Paul Akers, a Lean leader about my age who I respect on many levels, told me about his own physical transformation that included losing 50 pounds. He has since written a book about the process called Lean Health. As the title implies, Paul applied Lean concepts to his health. At the most fundamental level, he writes, your body is your customer, and having too much weight and consuming too much food is waste. He created accountability by using a fitness app and by sharing photos of what he was eating, a technique he calls the “photo diet,” and he standardized his routine by creating standard foods, exercise, and eating schedules.
With Paul’s encouragement, I began applying those same principles, and soon discovered that just about everything I thought I knew about nutrition and portion size was wrong. I adjusted portion sizes, eliminated unnecessary carbohydrates such as bread at dinner, and worked to balance my nutritional intake. In six months, I dropped thirty pounds while also meeting my balanced nutritional needs. The new diet, combined with the strength and aerobic conditioning I had been focusing on for the previous couple years, made me fitter than I have been since before college, more than thirty years ago. I feel great, and am more mentally sharp. Since I was careful to create a diet and exercise routine that I could be comfortable with over the long term, I have been able to sustain the improvements.
Good sleeping habits have also helped me improve my health. Without good rest, exercise and proper nutrition are much less effective. Most experts recommend eight or even nine hours of sleep each night, but that can vary considerably. In my case, a little over six hours, coincidentally about two REM cycles, seems best. Unless I have an important meeting or flight, I never set my alarm and still wake up around four. I don’t drink caffeinated coffee, but feel very alert until noon. I’ll often take a quick thirty-minute nap right after lunch, leaving me invigorated for the rest of the day. Figure out what amount of sleep works for you, erring on the longer side, and keeping in mind that experts probably recommend more than you think you need. Getting enough rest will multiply the effects of exercise and proper nutrition.
A fit body creates the foundation for a fit mind. Treat your body as your most important customer, reduce waste, gain energy, and create balance and harmony in your mind. This will help you be a more effective leader.