Why Physical Fitness is Key to your Career

If you are unfit and walking around the office, you are going to have a hard time convincing anyone you are disciplined.

I started my professional career as a corporate fitness instructor for Procter & Gamble USA in 1983. I was on the cutting edge of this notion of “corporate wellness” and was paid $5/hour to train executives on diet, exercise, and stress management, in a very progressive company that was on the front end of what would eventually become a global trend.

In the 33 years since, numerous studies have conclusively demonstrated the corporate benefits of encouraging a fitter workforce: reduced medical costs, improved productivity, reduced sick leaves, and increased employee longevity, to name a few. And as a result, nearly every leading company in every part of the world has jumped on the bandwagon and in some shape or form, offers a corporate fitness/wellness program that encourages employees to get fit and stay fit.

However, while the corporate benefits and cost savings are well-documented, the gains for the employees themselves are less visible. Beyond the generic phrases of “You will live longer” or “You will feel better,” there has been little emphasis on “What’s in it for me?” when it comes to employees. As employers, we try to incentivize, to push and cajole employees to get fit; we offer incentives or contests to make it fun. But we never come out and say what would really motivate someone: “Being physically fit will lead you to having a better, more fulfilling career.”

Nobody says this. But after 33 years of implementing corporate wellness programs across the globe, I have seen irrefutably that it is indeed true. So I am going to say it now: Being physically fit will lead to a better career, more career progress, and more personal fulfillment than leading a sedentary existence.

So if this doesn’t motivate someone to get off the couch and head to the gym or yoga class, I don’t know what will. Yes, fitness will give you a better career. It’s that simple.

How can I say this? Well, beyond all the data on life expectancy and productivity discussions, there are four drivers of how fitness will drive your career faster:

1. Improved brainpower. In the simplest of terms, being fit makes you smarter. Recent research from the University of British Columbia shows physically fit individuals have a more developed hippocampus, leading to improved memory, learning and cognitive function. In plain English, this means when you are fit, you have a better memory, you learn better, and your brain works faster. And this can mean all the difference in the world when it comes to getting that promotion!

2. More energy. A University of Georgia study placed sedentary employees onto a basic 30-minute-per-day exercise regime. Participants registered a whopping +20 percent gain in energy levels! To put this in perspective, a +20 percent gain in energy is equal to adding +1 additional workday to the normal five-day workweek. It’s like working a Saturday for every week of the year, except you don’t really have to work the Saturday! Now, in a competitive world, who is going to win? The people who work five days and deliver the output of five days? Or the fit people who work five days yet crank out the energy and workload of six days?

3. Better discipline. Self-discipline is a key factor for success in any endeavor. Whether it translates to arriving to work on time, to ensuring your numbers are always right, to taking the extra steps to ensuring a project is executed flawlessly, discipline is critical for success in any company or role. Most people will say, “I am disciplined.” But they often add a caveat: “…when I want to be.” Which in itself is a joke, as the very definition of discipline is “Doing something when we don’t want to do it.” It takes discipline to awaken at 4 a.m. and go running when we want to stay in bed. It takes no discipline whatsoever to eat a big bowl of ice cream if that is what we want to do. The very essence of discipline is willing oneself to do what we know we must do, but don’t want to do! So, if you are unfit and walking around the office, chances are you are going to have a hard time convincing anyone you are disciplined and will execute all elements of your role with the highest standards of discipline. Because discipline is a way of life. Disciplined individuals are disciplined in all facets of their lives, not just selected areas. And discipline starts with oneself.

4. Improved long-term thinking. All companies, all businesses, put a premium on employees who can think long-term, who show a wisdom and perspective beyond the present moment. As a CEO, I want people on my team who are not just worrying about today, but are thinking about the future and how our company will remain competitive for decades to come. Long-term thinking starts with ourselves. Our own lives are the most important thing to each of us. So, if an employee fails to think long-term about themselves, what makes me think they will think long-term about my business? When I see a clearly unfit person under 40 years old, I always wonder, “How do they think this is going to play out?” They already feel bad and are sick and unhealthy, and at such a young age! How do they think it is going to be when they are 40? 50? 60? As someone who is in their mid-50s, I can say it only gets tougher. If you can’t find your health at 35, well, you are in big trouble for the future, because it is only going to get worse. Perhaps it is a painful reality, but it’s true. If you let yourself go at age 30, it shows a glaring lack of long-term thinking and perspective on the most important part of your life — your life! And this certainly means you won’t be bringing any long-term perspective to your company.

Perhaps the Dalai Lama said it best, when asked by a journalist what surprises him most about humanity: “Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present, the result being that he does not live in the present or the future, he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

So get smart. Get fit. Get started today!