Better Leadership Through Better Health
I almost talked myself out of writing about physical health, but I decided to proceed because this topic is just too important to shy away from.
Physical health is directly connected to our ability to be more effective in everything we do, including our jobs. Physical health is crucial to our mental health—and vice versa.
Physical health is foundational to, well, everything.
My aim here is to cut through the overwhelming flood of often conflicting information, identify what I believe are a few top priorities, and encourage you to do whatever it takes to develop your own specific plan to address those priorities if you haven’t already.
What does physical health have to do with work, leadership, and personal growth?
Even the best carpenter is unlikely to produce high quality work with broken down power tools, dull chisels, or rulers and levels that are not accurate and true. A carpenter committed to excellence would never allow their most important tools to deteriorate in that way in the first place.
So ask yourself, as you run your business, lead your team, and do the work that matters to you, what is your most important tool?
We think there is only one answer: your mind. Everything you do is the product of that one, all-important tool.
Therefore, shouldn’t we all do everything we can to understand how our minds work and how to use them most effectively? Shouldn’t we all do everything we can to make sure our mind functions at the highest level possible? This seems like a no-brainer.
Mind, Brain, and Body
Speaking of the brain, it obviously has something to do with smooth operation of one’s mind. Although science hasn't worked out all the technical details, it seems clear that this all-important mind of ours is an emergent property of our physical brains and nervous systems.
Finally, the brain and nervous system are part of our physical bodies. Duh, you might reply. But we tend to put our brain in a different category, when really we shouldn’t. Brains and nerves are made of cells that require nutrients and oxygen just like every other part of our body.
Your mind is the tool you use to do your work, to engage with your friends and family, to lead your team or organization, and to experience literally everything. You cannot get the most of your mind without maintaining your physical body. It’s all one exquisite, complex, interconnected system that is you.
But I Feel Fine…
That’s the problem. Building up a life-threatening lesion in your left anterior descending coronary artery is a 25 year project. The same is true for many of our most troublesome chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes. We feel fine until we aren’t. The decline in how sharp you are on the job will be too gradual to notice.
The best time to plant a tree, and the best time to focus on your health, was 10 years ago. The second best time is now.
Where to Focus
What follows is a very high-level discussion of exercise and nutrition, the two interventions we can most directly control. Many of these ideas are from Peter Attia’s new book, Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity, which I highly recommend.
In Outlive, Dr. Attia offers specific recommendations based on a rigorous examination of the latest scientific literature. He discusses not only diet and exercise, but also cancer, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, genetics, sleep, and much more.
There is no drug or diet that delivers anywhere near the benefit of exercise. It is the single most powerful health intervention available.
It is also VERY easy to overcomplicate. If your goal is elite-level athletic performance, you might need to get more specific, but if your goal is to radically improve your physical health, a few key elements will get it done.
Cardiovascular and Metabolic Health
The finer points can seem endless, but two things bubble to the surface as essential:
- Long-duration, low/moderate intensity activity like biking, jogging, rowing, or swimming (“Zone 2”); walking is typically not enough, a stationary bike works well because you can easily maintain a constant pace.
- Short-duration, very high intensity, max output exercise (VO2 Max training)
Zone 2 Exercise
Forget about heart rate monitors and lactose thresholds. Zone 2 is the steady-state pace at which you can engage in a conversation, but would really rather not. Your own subjective evaluation of level of exertion is actually quite accurate.
Three to four hours of Zone 2 exercise per week is ideal, usually in 30-60 minute chunks, but even one hour is a world of improvement over none, a potentially life-saving improvement over remaining sedentary.
Maximum cardiovascular output, as measured by VO2 Max, is as strongly correlated with morbidity and mortality as just about anything. If you are in the bottom 25% of VO2 Max for your age, your risk of all-cause mortality is higher than if you had end-stage kidney disease. It’s higher than if you smoke!
There’s no way around it: VO2 Max training is not fun. The good news is that the suffering is relatively brief. A few minutes of high-intensity exercise once or twice a week, trying to reach your maximum heart rate on a bike, stair-climber, running up a hill, etc., will make a big difference.
Simply put, you really do not want to be frail and weak, especially in the second half of life. Muscle loss is inevitable as we age beyond our 40s, and we lose fast-twitch muscle much more quickly than slow-twitch. Even if we maintain good endurance, we are likely to rapidly lose strength and speed without targeted intervention.
Elderly people fall because, when they stumble, they do not have the speed of movement to get their feet back under them, or the strength to catch themselves. Suffice to say that the ten-year outlook for someone who breaks a hip at age sixty-five is pretty awful. Plus, being physically frail just greatly impairs your ability to enjoy life.
Do not envision long hours pumping iron until you puke. Effective strength training requires load-bearing exercise (e.g., weights), but a great workout can be accomplished in much less time than you might imagine.
Nutrition and Weight
Diet and nutrition is a misinformation minefield, partly because it is simply very difficult to study, so even well-run experiments can result in muddy data, and partly because of our human desire for simple, easy answers to complex questions. Here’s what seems clear:
- Maintaining a healthy weight is really important. I know that might sound flippant; the point is the real reason to worry about your weight has nothing to do with aesthetics.
- There is no “right” way to eat. There is only what is right for you. If your goal is weight loss, the right diet is the one you can stick to consistently over time. If you can't sustain an eating pattern for the long run, it's not going to be an effective approach.
Regarding weight, I feel like this must be said: if you are judging and blaming yourself or others for obesity, I would encourage you to reconsider that viewpoint. I would bet money that in the not so distant future, blaming people for being overweight will feel as backwards as blaming someone for epilepsy (something we also did until the early 20th century).
Is That It?
The oversimplification of the vast topic of nutrition is intentional. Diving into specific macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) is a topic likely to incite a religious-war. The point here is not that macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber are not important, but simply that being thirty pounds overweight probably has a much bigger impact on your health than choosing or avoiding specific foods, assuming you do not have allergies or sensitivities.
I would like to tell you that Martha and I have this all figured out, but that would be far from the truth. Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or start exercising understands that knowing what to do plus three dollars will get you a coffee at Starbucks. Information by itself is not sufficient. In many ways, the glut of information at our fingertips makes things worse, thus my effort to identify the few key areas that make the biggest difference.
While we are far from perfect, we do have some tools at our disposal that can really help make positive change a reality. One of the best is Immunity to Change™, a process we learned from its creators, Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. Contact us here to learn more about it.
Here’s to a healthy 2024,
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