Workout Warrior

With all the hours and stress, can CEOs still stay in shape?

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Personal trainer Seema Bhatia marvels at how some CEOs throw themselves into their workouts. They apply the same focus to biceps curls and burpees as they do to motivating employees and cutting big deals.

Bhatia says that’s the level of intensity required to move them to the level of conditioning they need. “If they don’t make the commitment and schedule time with a trainer, they tend to skip working out altogether,” says Bhatia, who designs wellness programs for corporate clients.

In the ever-demanding business world, CEOs are often scheduled down to the minute with strategy meetings, client dinners, investor presentations, and a slew of other business appointments. A recent Harvard Business School study reported that CEOs work more than 62 hours a week, more than half of it while on the road. But they won’t be able to keep up that type of demanding schedule without taking care of themselves. “To sustain the intensity of the job, CEOs need to train—just as elite athletes do,” says Michael Porter, a Harvard professor and coauthor of the study.

It’s why a growing group of both physical trainers and business experts say today’s top leaders need to schedule time for exercise just as they would a business appointment. Even just throwing something on the calendar can go a long way to getting CEOs into the habit of exercising, then following with rest.

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A good workout doesn’t have to take a lot of time, either. Exercising vigorously for 20 to 30 minutes three or four times a week—barely 3 percent of the amount of time a CEO devotes to work—offers plenty of benefits. “People think that if they can’t work out for an hour then it’s not worth it,” says Rick Richey, a member of the National Association of Sports Medicine and cofounder of ReCover, which focuses on helping the mind and body recover after exercise. “There’s nothing more damaging to consistency than that mindset.”

Experts suggest starting with morning workouts. “There is not only less of a chance of a conflict arising, it also sets [you] up for a stronger day,” says Pete Leibman, a certified personal trainer and author of Work Stronger: Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Among the top CEOs who wake up before 6 a.m. to exercise are Apple CEO Tim Cook, Disney CEO Bob Iger, former Starbucks CEO and chairman Howard Schultz, and Virgin founder Richard Branson.

As for the workout itself, focus on both cardio and strength training. Trainers say they see a lot of CEOs who complain of back and leg pain and knots in their shoulders, aches brought on by doing a lot of work sitting down. Strength conditioning can counteract the loss of muscle mass that comes with being middle-aged.

For CEOs who are just starting out an exercise regimen, trainers have one more piece of advice: leave the business behind. “With CEOs, it’s about making every second count and bringing a focus, intensity, and purpose to the workout,” Leibman says.

And if that doesn’t get them to commit to exercising, there’s always the trick Bhatia uses with CEO clients who have a tendency to cancel: calling their assistants to put a workout back on the schedule.