Can Exercise Impact Leadership Performance?

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A leader’s job can be a busy and stressful one.
The hours are long, with a daily agenda of non-stop meetings and few breaks. Executives often stay at the office until evening, entertain clients over dinner and take full briefcases home for the weekend.
Their travel schedules can be hectic, with some spending up to a third of the year on the road. This can come at a cost to health, personal relationships and overall life balance.
One reason is that many organizations expect, demand and reward bosses for focusing their energy on work. Another is that executives frequently report strong pressure (either self-imposed or otherwise) to succeed.
As one executive put it, “I have to be perfect.”
When hard work is rewarded and reinforced by the values and norms of other members in the organization, executives often come to define themselves in terms of their work.
The rewards — praise, respect, power, money and a sense of accomplishment — provide incentive to spend even more time and energy on work.
Given this, taking time out for daily exercise becomes an ever-increasing challenge. Yet, few would argue that regular physical activity is paramount to achieving optimal health and preventing debilitating diseases.
But can exercise possibly impact leadership performance?
“If I’d known I was going to live this long I would’ve taken better care of myself.”

In an effort to provide valid health and fitness data to leaders, The Center for Creative Leadership collected health data about almost 3,000 male and female senior executives from 1991 through 2003. Study participants were attendees at the Center’s “Leadership at the Peak” program designed for leaders at the highest levels in organizations.
Data collected included percentage of body fat, blood lipids, blood pressure, C-reactive protein (cardiac risk factor), exercise level and exercise routines.
Additional information was collected by having the executives rate themselves on a variety of leadership competencies, as well as from the ratings of the executives’ observers (peers, direct reports, superiors, boards and others).
Can exercise possibly impact leadership performance?
In an attempt to partially answer that question, the Campbell Leadership Index and Executive Dimensions observer ratings of executives who exercised and were compared to those who did not exercise or only exercised sporadically.
The exercise group represented those who were consistent exercisers and had been exercising regularly for six months or more. The quantity and quality of exercise was not a determinant in selecting the groups.
However, the exercisers expended more calories per week in physical activity, exercised at higher intensities and had significantly fewer risk factors than those who did not exercise or only exercised sporadically.
“A better leader is one thing, but what is a dead leader worth? So we have to take care of ourselves.”
- Study Participant

Among the LAP participants, a higher proportion of introverts cited time with self, walking the dog and time with a spouse as reasons to exercise than did the extroverts.
This is not too surprising given the stronger need for introverts to spend time alone or with “select” companions in order to re-energize.
A similar proportion of extroverts and introverts cited the other reasons of health, enjoyment, feeling good and increasing energy.
Not surprisingly, non- or sporadic exercisers cited lack of time, work conflicts and lack of priority as reasons not to exercise or exercise more regularly. Few reported factors such as lack of facilities, lack of know-how, a physical injury or lack of enjoyment as being barriers to exercise.
This is also in agreement with previous research that has shown that the No. 1 reason given by non-exercisers for not exercising is lack of motivation (or priority) followed closely by lack of time.
One of the most important characteristics of regular exercisers is that they report that exercise is a priority for them.
“Whenever I feel like exercising, I lie down until the feeling passes.”
-J.P. McEvoy

While these data don’t imply cause and effect (i.e. being fit doesn’t make you a better leader), several previous studies have shown that exercise does provide numerous psychological benefits and can serve as a stress reducer.
Anecdotal evidence and executive testimonials also suggest that regular exercise can positively impact performance at work.
Either way, the most important conclusion from these data is that in order to be effective, executives need not give up exercise time in favor of work time.
Sharon McDowell-Larsen Ph.D. and Joan G. Saunders MHSA are Senior Faculty at The Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs.