The importance of fitness and wellbeing for entrepreneurs

Whether you’re scaling mountains, racing cars or going to the gym, undertaking some form of healthy activity will not only help you to combat rising stress levels, you might actually live longer too.

Traditionally, adrenalin and fitness junkies have been revered in the US and treated with disdain in the UK. But times change and the ranks of the furiously fit and tirelessly active are now swelling on these shores.

Simon Dolan, the CEO of SJD Accountancy, falls into the category of adrenalin junkie, enjoying nothing better than racing at breakneck speeds: ‘When you start driving round the track as fast as the car will possibly go, you can’t think about anything else.

‘It’s the only time in my life when I don’t think about my family or business – I’m 100 per cent focused on driving the car to its limits. That’s a fantastic feeling and a wonderful way to switch off.’

In the zone

Steve Grout, the CEO for direct marketing agency TargetBase Claydon Heeley likes running and regularly posts sub-three-hour marathon times. He notes that, after going for a run, he feels more relaxed about work: ‘A lot of what goes round in my head that had struck me as being problematic either disappears or doesn’t seem quite so bad.’

If you’re a rock star, it may indeed be better to burn out than fade away, but the same cannot be said for entrepreneurs. For those CEOs who work from dawn till dusk, steering clear of the gym and preferring to unwind with a bottle of wine, burn-out becomes a real possibility as the years go by.

The scientific arguments in favour of exercise are overwhelming, and yet the state of the UK population’s health is almost as ruinous as its finances. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says physical inactivity in England costs an estimated £8.2 billion each year through the direct costs of treating related diseases, and money lost through sickness and absence.

At present, around 65 per cent of men and 76 per cent of women in England do not achieve the recommended level of activity for health (simply to accumulate 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as a walk, on five or more days of the week). Lack of exercise contributes to coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers. In addition to this, it exacerbates stress related illnesses such as depression and anxiety, which are major factors in absence from work.

Rat Race

People spend over 60 per cent of their waking hours at work – that figure will obviously be higher if you run your own business. Jon Denoris, who runs the health and fitness consultancy Club 51, recommends people spend two to three hours keeping in shape. ‘You should be exercising most days of the week, unless there is a genuine reason why you can’t,’ he says. ‘Often, clients tell me that time is the biggest barrier to exercise, which I don’t necessarily accept as an excuse.’

Keeping fit will improve the mind and the body, insists Denoris. ‘An increasing amount of research shows that exercise can act as an inoculator to stress, although the nature of that exercise will differ for everyone. For some people it might involve a tai chi class or a yoga class, which can help to reduce cortisol [stress hormone] levels,’ he explains. ‘One of the bizarre things to note is that exercise in itself is a form of stress, but it helps to improve your tolerance of stress over the long term. In the same way that muscles are built up by breaking down and then reforming the protein in those muscles during exercise, the neurons in your brain “strengthen” and so you are better able to cope. Being active and healthy can really help with managing mental health.’

Health is more important than fitness

One of the key points here is that being healthy shouldn’t be confused with becoming a keep fit fanatic. Neil Shah, a director at The Stress Management Society, observes that getting off the bus a stop earlier or ensuring you go for a stroll during a lunch break can make a difference. The danger is that if you keep working long hours and have no outlet or release then your stress levels will augment, making you less effective in the workplace and leading to problems in your personal life.

‘Stress is a natural response to a dangerous situation. We were never designed to stay in a stressful state for extended periods of times,’ notes Shah. If you’re living in a state of constant pressure, then it will inevitably begin to take its toll. Symptoms include impaired forward planning and creative thought, digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhoea and constipation, and a lowered or non-existent sex drive. ‘When you are stressed, all the non-essential functions begin to shut down,’ states Shah.

The classic “stress beaters” like alcohol, coffee, nicotine and refined sugar products (chocolate), only serve to provide a short burst of energy, which ultimately proves self-defeating, leaving you lethargic, enervated, knackered. The trick is to switch off completely and not do anything. Even watching TV or reading a newspaper are misguided, according to Shah, as you’re still
“doing something”. ‘Ten minutes of proper relaxation every day can reduce your chances of a heart attack by 35 per cent,’ observes Shah.

Tools of liberation

Richard Gilder now runs Intercept IT after being made CEO this year. A single parent, he says it’s essential to try and stick to five-day weeks so he can spend time with his daughters of 12 and 15.

‘I have a two-hour commute on the train and I can do work then, which is useful,’ he says. ‘I endeavour never to miss a sports day or match that either of the two girls are involved in. To do that, I’m prepared to stop working for a few hours and then start again later that evening. I’m very happy to be flexible. You need to get the balance right.’

Related: Healthy body, healthy business

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