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Treadmills at the Office

If employees want to reach their full potential, the smart nerds have something to learn from the dumb jocks. Study after study suggests that athletes make excellent employees and even better leaders.
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It is a long-held belief that the dumb jocks and the smart nerds must occupy separate spheres, or the delicate balance of the universe will be thrown off. However, if employees want to reach their full potential, the smart nerds have something to learn from the dumb jocks. Study after study suggests that athletes make excellent employees and even better leaders. In fact, athletes who have the brains and the brawn may have an edge over non-athletes from the moment they submit their resume.

Susie Hall, president of Vitamin T talent agency, states that: "Many hiring managers proactively search for and prioritize candidates who have played college sports, particularly as part of a team sport." She explains that former athletes understand how to function as part of a team and tend to have a competitive drive.

Fortune 500 published an article about 22 top-earning CEOs who were also successful college athletes. Walter E. Robb of Whole Foods didn't just play four years of soccer at Stanford; he was the captain of the team. W. James McNerney Jr., top gun at Boeing, played JV hockey and varsity baseball at Harvard. David M. Cordani, CEO at CIGNA, has competed in more than 100 triathlons since 1992, including an Ironman.

Even if you're not an athlete, getting a good workout helps. Jim Citrin at Yahoo! Finance did an informal study of the daily routine of 20 CEOs he knew personally. He found that more than 70 percent of the business leaders in his survey perform their exercise in the morning, while 15 percent exercise sometime during the day.

A regular exercise routine might not just help you become a CEO -- it could keep you there as well. In 2004, a management professor from Ball State University, Mike Goldsby, conducted a study involving more than 360 small business executives. [1] The researchers wanted to know whether there was a correlation between the fitness practice of CEOs and the success of their business. According to their study, CEOs who maintained a regular exercise routine experienced greater financial gains within their company than those who did not. Goldsby theorized that the work ethic of being an athlete, such as training even when you're not in the mood, might spill over into the workplace.

Notably, Goldsby discovered that companies headed by runners were more successful in terms of sales than companies beaded by non-runners. The April 2009 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports Exercise contains a study conducted at the University of Illinois that might help explain why. Twenty-one students took memory tests directly following 30 minutes of sitting, running, or lifting weights. The students who ran had a sharper reaction time and higher memory test scores than those who rested or lifted weights.

For female corporate leaders, it is even more critical to get your edge on the court. Recent studies have shown that: "82 percent of businesswomen played sports after elementary school. While only one in six women call themselves athletic, nearly half of women making over $75,000 do."

It's not just about reaching CEO status -- everyone climbing the ladder can benefit from a good workout. A Cleveland State University study noted that employees who engaged in regular physical exercise had wages 6-10 percent higher when compared to than those that did not exercise.

It's high time schools and businesses make fitness a priority. If you think it's a funny idea, consider this: Adding a gym class skyrocketed math and reading scores at Illinois's Naperville Central High School. According to the article:

Within one semester of implementing a new physical education class reading and math scores rose 20 percent among students who took the fitness class the hour directly before these two subjects.

Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor John J. Ratey, M.D., knows why: Exercise helps produce new brain cells in the hippocampus, the Grand Central Station for memory." He adds that aerobic exercise in particular "improves attention, increases motivation, heightens the senses and reduces stress."

Researchers at the University of Muenster "found that people learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster following intense exercise compared with those who performed moderate exercise or who rested." The exercise led to higher rates and more sustained levels of a protein called BDNF in the brain while the subjects learned their task. The BDNF protein, according to Ratey: "serves as Miracle-Gro for the brain, fertilizing brain cells to keep them functioning and growing, as well as spurring the development of new neurons."

Think that requiring fitness classes for students will take months to have an effect? Not so. A study conducted by Leeds Metropolitan University of white-collar workers revealed that work performance improved on the same day they exercised. The study followed two hundred workers who did the exercise of their choice during their lunch hour. Those who exercised reported a more positive outlook, better concentration, improved work-based relationships and reduced stress that same day.

For thousands of years, our day-to-day life involved demanding physical labor. Now, within a mere half-century, our workday involves endless hours of sitting, but brains and hearts still benefit from an increase in circulation, adrenaline and endorphins. If our work and school environments are to be more productive, we need to take a step toward reintegrating physical movement into our daily lives. Perhaps one day treadmills will be as ubiquitous at the office as copy machines.


1. "Fiscal fitness? Can CEO's exercise habits improve company sales?" Steve Kaelble, Indiana Business Magazine, August 1, 2004, Curtis Magazine Group, Inc. Volume: 48 Issue: 8 Page: 22(2)

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