Peak performance: How business leaders maintain their own health and well-being

The premise that a fit and healthy CEO creates a healthy company is not a new concept, but are our business leaders working up a sweat to keep themselves and their organisations in peak condition? By Patricia Moore.

Executives who understand the importance of a daily exercise programme are in good company; US president Obama reportedly does 45 minutes of exercise six days a week; Richard Branson ‘can’t go a day without exercise’ and Bill Gates spends an hour on the treadmill every day. Even octogenarian T. Boone Pickens apparently still hits the gym at 6.30 every morning. 

Exercise needs to become a habit and, according to some researchers, that can take up to 66 days to develop. Precisely what form the habit takes depends on the individual. It’s also important it’s part of a balanced programme of wellbeing.

Management asked New Zealand business leaders how they stay fit and healthy – and whether their focus on wellness extends across their company.
Exercise is important to Metlifecare CEO Alan Edwards, “but it’s not an end in itself. Exercise, together with eating well and resting well, is what helps me most. I hold the view that balance is important. A healthy body, mind and spirit.”

Edwards belongs to a gym and enjoys the thinking time exercise provides. “Going to the gym, a walk or spending time on the golf course creates opportunity to enjoy some physical challenges and provides time to think.”

Over a year ago Edwards went through what he refers to as “a period of great discipline to lose 12 kilos”. He’s committed to not going back to his previous weight and is therefore “relatively disciplined. I’m also a very low consumer of alcohol.”

The gym doesn’t hold universal allure. Chris Roberts, Tourism Industry Association chief executive “tried it once for a few months but it didn’t appeal.” That said, he’s no couch potato. For the past six years Roberts has played Golden Oldies rugby and at 49 is one of the younger team members. “We take it easy in the physical confrontations but you still get a good workout.”

To get fit for rugby he started running and completed a half-marathon in February.
He tries to fit in a couple of runs a week and, with two teenage boys, is often chasing a cricket ball or throwing a rugby ball around. “You can actually do a surprising amount of exercise without trying. I have an exercise wristband and it tells me that even on a normal working day, with no organised exercise, I’ll cover four or five kilometres.” When possible, he walks to external meetings.

For Chris Litchfield, MD at Coca-Cola Amatil New Zealand and Fiji, exercise is an important part of the daily plan. “It’s my first slot of the day. If I get up and exercise I have more energy at the end of my day. Physical activity also drives my mental agility.”

Running is his favoured option. Litchfield travels a lot and stays with his plan, using hotel gyms or hitting the streets. “Australia’s great because they’re obviously two hours behind us so I wake at 4am or 5am anyway and I’m often out running in the dark while the locals are still sleeping. If the gym’s open I’ll run on the treadmill.”

His fitness is also helped by having an active nine-year-old son who’s currently “passionate about cricket”. Thirty or 40 minutes bowling at him after work not only adds to the day’s exercise quota but also means valuable family time. “When I’m not travelling I prioritise the family – try and schedule my day around breakfast with them and seeing them off to school.”

Indeed, balancing the demands of work with quality family time is a widely recognised cause of stress. For Roberts, family time is also a priority.
“I try to keep hours at work within reasonable boundaries. Answering a few emails and making a few phone calls from home is preferable to staying late in the office.”
Sina Wendt-Moore, Leadership New Zealand chief executive, admits to negative feelings about regular structured exercise. “Over much of my adult life this aspect of my well-being has been the most problematic and challenging. When I focus and commit to physical activities regularly, I know it enhances my overall feelings of wellbeing; better sleep, more energy, less stress.”

For her the motivation is more about social engagement and fun. Over the past few years she’s joined friends in activities like boxing boot-camps, hot hula or Zumba and five kilometre and 10 kilometre walks.

“For me it definitely has to be something I enjoy doing.” Hers is a holistic approach. “I practice mindfulness and use guided meditation to relax, centre and focus me. As an extrovert, the time I get to spend with people in my job is both invigorating and motivating but I also make sure I get time and space on my own to reflect, clear my head and just be.”

Another challenge for health-conscious executives is staying with a sensible diet while still attending work-related social functions. Wendt-Moore says she’s definitely become more conscious of what she eats and drinks as she ages and admits to always struggling with maintaining her weight.

“Enjoying diverse cuisine and socialising, and an aversion to hard-core fitness hasn’t helped. But I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin and more conscious that eating healthily is about living a long life, keeping good health, not about the terrible pressure society puts on women around having a perfect body image.”
TIA’s Roberts has always been able to eat anything without adding kilos, he says, “But that’s starting to change as I get older. I try to eat healthily but find it hard to resist anything that tastes good. Running is certainly helping me keep in shape.”

Litchfield’s a high protein/low carb man, particularly later in the day. “But I also have a sweet tooth so if I have an urge for sweetness I’m a big consumer of Diet Coke. It gives me a treat and it’s guilt free. I probably don’t drink as much water as I should and while we’ve got a great portfolio of alcohol brands I don’t drink [alcohol] during the week. That’s for socialising or entertaining over the weekend. During the week it’s stuff I don’t need.”

The impact on the bottom line
Recognition of the impact of wellness on the bottom line is seeing a growing number of companies institute policies and initiatives to promote wellness.
Coco-Cola Amatil has pulled a number of these from its parent company and also has a lot of its own initiatives in place, says Litchfield.

“We’re a big supporter of Round the Bays and City to Surf and encourage huge staff participation with free entry for families. This year we had more than 400 at Round the Bays and make it a big event, encouraging people to engage and get fit because it’s great fun. Being active is part of what we do.”

As well as health care initiatives, the company also subsidises gym membership and offers wellness subsidies to enable people to choose activities that help them balance their stress or lifestyle around work, says Litchfield.

Health and wellbeing is an important part of their business at Metlifecare; they’re another regular – and big – contributor to the volume of people taking part in Auckland’s Round the Bays, and have ongoing health programmes in the office supporting each other to live healthily.

“We also have a programme for the executive team addressing a healthy mind, body and spirit and how to improve harmony between family life and work. This provides us with tools to use personally and share with the teams to address wellness holistically rather than just as physical exercise.”

They’re also casting the wellness net wider and encouraging exercise in their villages, one of which is a certified WorkWell Site. Plans are to extend this into other villages, says Edwards.

TIA in Wellington is a pretty tight group that looks out for each other’s general wellbeing, says Roberts. He’s introduced subsidised health care for all staff and they’re a pretty energetic bunch.

“Over half the office entered the Wellington Round the Bays, five of us completed the half-marathon, one staff member’s a rafting world champion and the rest of us are active in one way or another.”

Programmes like Vodafone’s recently announced maternity policy are also making an important contribution. Essentially it will save parents in childcare costs in their first six months and enable them to spend a greater amount of time with the child.

CEO Russell Stanners says family is important to Vodafone and they’re always looking for ways to make things easier for mothers and caregivers. “Juggling career, family and life can be tricky,” he says, in a statement.

Litchfield believes the focus on wellness will continue to grow. It’s something that’s addressed frequently in meetings of the company’s executive team as they look at ways to make the workplace more enjoyable and productive. “We’re a big believer that a happy, healthy workplace gets us better outcomes.”

As CEO of Leadership NZ, Wendt-Moore is seeing growing emphasis on wellness at both executive and company levels.
“Resilience, well-being, self-care and sustainability of our leaders is critical to business, organisational and community success and as leaders we need to model health and wellness practice and foster workplace practices that enable our teams to stay well and happy in their work.”

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