“I’m making better food choices and I am a stickler on exercising 5-6 days every week.  I have more energy and feel much better. And as an additional bonus, I’m sleeping better.” -Leadership at the Peak program alum

I’ve worked with senior executives from all over the world who have attended our Leadership at the Peak program for almost 20 years. My role is to help leaders focus on how to eat and exercise better in order to be “Fit to Lead.”

While good health may or may not a good leader make (or break), it does contribute to good brain function, sustained energy output, and being physically resilient. These are important attributes for leaders, but the behaviors that contribute to these qualities are often sorely neglected.

Health and Leadership

It’s true that everyone wants to be healthy — indeed, I have yet to come across someone who doesn’t — but in order to attain good health we must engage in healthy behaviors. While that seems obvious, therein lies the rub.

There are 4 pillars of good health:

  • Eat a nutrient-rich, health-promoting diet.
  • Get adequate, quality sleep.
  • Engage in regular physical activity.
  • Avoid turning pressure into stress.

All are important in their own right for a number of reasons, but they also work synergistically. The sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Neglect one and the rest often come up lacking. Take care of one, and this often improves the ability to take care of the others.

Take sleep, for example. We know that poor sleep hurts brain function, but it also makes eating well and exercising more challenging. Lack of sleep hurts our internal mechanisms of satiation; ghrelin, a hormone which increases appetite, goes up and leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, goes down. This increases the likelihood of reaching for junk or calorie-rich foods. Eating nutrient-poor and calorie-rich foods, in turn, can hurt sleep.

Chronic sleep deprivation can also hinder exercise efforts. For example, lack of sleep increases the “perceived effort” of exercise. In other words, it makes it feel that much harder. It also negatively impacts reaction time.

Inadequate sleep leaves less energy for exercise and may thus result in another excuse to skip working out altogether. Lack of exercise, in turn, contributes to lower quality sleep.

Lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and irregular exercise leave you less able to cope with pressures, and an increased chance that those pressures will turn into stress. Stress in turn makes it more difficult to sleep, eat, and exercise well.

Engage in this negative cycle long enough and problems start to creep in — reduced stamina, weight gain, increased blood pressure, increased susceptibility to illness, reductions in cognitive performance, achy joints, fatigue, and so on. Job performance is compromised, not to mention increased risk for conditions like diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and stroke. Not only will these hurt leadership; they can kill it.

Win the Morning, Win the Day

Focusing on one aspect like sleep, food, or exercise will often prompt improvements in other areas. For example, getting regular morning exercise can prompt positive adjustments to sleep habits. Getting up a bit earlier to fit in a workout might prompt going to bed a little earlier.

Going to bed earlier takes advantage of that melatonin spike we see at around 10 p.m. Sleep time before midnight is like putting money in the bank — that’s when the deepest and most restorative sleep occurs.  Morning exercise has also been shown to have the greatest positive impact on sleep as compared to exercise at noon or later in the day. If done outside, it also encourages early morning daylight exposure, another factor shown to help with increased alertness during the day and better sleep.

Given all this, we often encourage leaders to “win the morning, win the day,” — i.e. start the day with some vigorous physical activity and other healthy habits can result.

“My changes have been at the very holistic level – combining increased scrutiny of diet with a rigorous exercise program, and being more self-aware of the symptoms when I don’t do this (short fuse, irritability, etc.). This has made a huge difference. More energy, better composure, better clarity of thought. A huge mental impact therefore. I still get it wrong, and have days when (for whatever reason) I don’t follow my own knowledge, which just reminds me of the importance! My personal effectiveness in my role has definitely increased. Energy levels are higher, stress is better handled, I sleep better, and personal resilience is increased.” -Leadership at the Peak alum

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