In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection. ~ Plato
The body is the foundation for our lives – professionally and personally. It’s the only “vehicle” we’ve got during this short journey we call our lives. The purpose of nourishing and strengthening our bodies is to ‘add life to you years and years to your life.’
As a leader you need energy, vitality and strength to carry on your mission and fulfill your purpose. A better word for this is vigor. Nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott calls vigor the state of “physical energy, mental acuity, and emotional well-being.” We all know the basic ideas to accomplish this – exercise, nutrition and rest. Like most important things in life, it’s simple but not easy.
My view is that you need to gain new skills and awareness into creating your own body practice. As leaders, our noble missions and worthy causes demand from us optimal function and wellness when it comes to our bodies.
Let’s begin with exercise. We’ve all come across articles and ads promising the secrets to a trim body in record time. Buy a magazine, or checkout a video and you’ll see countless workout programs for different occasions. As a busy leader focusing on accomplishing your mission you should focus less on protocols and programs and more on principles.
Here are eight principles – 8 S’s – that you should focus on regardless of the workout program or protocol you choose:
1. Strength is the foundation of our entire physical experience. “Physical strength is the most important thing in life. This is true whether we want it to be or not…Our strength, more than any other thing we possess, still determines the quality and the quantity of our time here in these bodies,” explains Mark Rippetoe in his book Starting Strength. This is sound advice for us all, not just athletes.Strength training prevents disease, extends life, fights fat, increases metabolism and has been shown to improve cognitive function. Gary Bannister explains why strength training should be the foundation of your exercise practice: “Proper strength training is the only system capable of satisfying all five potential benefits of exercise – an increase in strength, flexibility, cardiovascular condition, body-composition, and injury prevention.”
2. Stamina and endurance are important components of your body practice. Endurance is the ability to exert force and do repeated movements over an extended period of time. In the military we trained to build our stamina to withstand stress and hardship. But don’t think that stamina is only for the practitioners of the military arts. As leaders we need to be able to keep going as we accomplish our mission over long periods of time while dealing with struggle and fatigue.
3. Sprint. Stamina and strength building are the most common components of a fitness routine. We’ve all experienced or seen people lifting weights and slowly running (doing slow, steady cardio). What if I told you there is another physical movement that helps you burn fat, improves your insulin sensitivity, helps you build strength and muscle and takes minutes instead of hours to perform. I’m talking about sprinting. High intensity movement has all these benefits and must be included in your body practice.
4. Stretch. All this vigorous movement of lifting for strength, pushing our endurance and high intensity sprinting will risk injuring us unless we stretch. By stretch we mean all the dynamic movements that prepare your body to maximize performance and the joint mobility that helps the maintenance of your body. Scott Sonnon, author of Free to Move even calls mobility the ‘elixir of life:’
5. Spiritus is the Latin word for breath. I remember learning an interesting fact during my military training. One instructor told us that a person can go 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water and 3 minutes without breathing. Breathing is the first thing we do when we are born and our last action when we die. For such an important human activity it’s amazing how little intentional focus we put on breathing and how incorrectly we do it.“The nose is for breathing and the mouth is for eating.” – ProverbAncient wisdom and modern medical science both counsel us to pay attention to how we breathe.”For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.” – Sanskrit ProverbAs the ancient Indians suggest, breath is life!“The all too common tendency to breathe in a manner that is shallow, or constrained, is one of the great banes of modern man,” explains John Loupos, M.S.Psych, C.H.S.E. “ Habitual shallow chest breathing is a major precursor for cardiovascular problems, not to mention respiratory problems, as well as a host of other health issues.”To help us here we need to engage the body’s breathing muscle: the diaphragm. “Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.”
6. Sport is the next S. Participating in sports is fun, a great workout, encourages team work and can strengthen your competitive drive. As a leader, you will appreciate a famous injunction from General Douglas MacArthur that speaks to the importance of sports beyond the playing fields: “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”
7. Silence, is the most overlooked of all the previous components of your body practice. You need to rest and recover. Sports science reminds us that physical growth happens during rest.
8. Spark. The final and most important benefit for us knowledge workers is ‘Spark.’ This is the title of Dr John Ratey and Eric Hagerman’s book explaining how exercise will actually improve your brain performance. In an interesting juxtaposition of conventional exercise wisdom Dr. Ratey call’s the physical benefits of exercise actually side effects: “But the real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important – and fascinating – than what it does for the body. Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects.” How cool is that? You work out your body and brain!
So how do you put this altogether? The protocol or workout you choose is less important than a balanced body practice that takes into account all the ‘S’s.
Make sure you lift heavy things – barbells or your own bodyweight – sprint outside, ride your bike, swim, run, move your joints, play a sport for fun and competition, breathe deeply and rest properly.
So worry less about which workout fad you follow to get a ‘six pack’ and more about an integrated and dedicated path to building your body, having fun and boosting your brain.