IMD International

How to improve performance at work through physical activity

steven Macgregor

May 6, 2015

Steven P. MacGregor, PhD, founder of the Leadership Academy of Barcelona and expert in executive health and performance will teach several sessions for the complete executive at IMD's management program, Orchestrating Winning Performance, in both Lausanne and Singapore in 2015.

This year's Lausanne edition of Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP), IMD's week-long, customizable program to reinvigorate business leaders, is coming up this 21-26 June 2015 in Lausanne.

IMD spoke with Steven, who will lead sessions at OWP showing top-executives how good shape translates to effective thinking.

IMD: How does being physically fit help high-level executives perform better at work?

Steven MacGregor: Physical movement helps the body and the brain work more efficiently. Tough decisions are easier to make. Hormones are released when you exercise that help grow and develop both body and mind, and exercise even creates a buffer against cognitive diseases like Parkinson's later on in life. A more indirect, but still important benefit, is that it helps executives build healthy habits and powerful rituals.

People who work in an office environment must simply remember that they have a body. Many professionals forget about their physical self until something goes wrong with it.

What do you suggest business leaders do to find time to become more complete?

Executives should be more adept at behavior change. It's not about finding more time in an already packed day or even separating exercise from the work day. It's about integrating activity into the normal day. Steve Jobs used to have walking meetings for example. Alternatively, a stand up meeting also delivers several health and business benefits.

One of our major health problems is that we sit down all day. Simply by getting executives to realize how much they are sitting down will make a massive difference. Stand up more! Research shows that eliminating a chair in a meeting makes people more collaborative.

What types of activities and frequency to you recommend for executives?

What we are coming to understand is that it is less about time and more about intensity. High intensity exercise, following an interval training protocol pioneered in athletics, for just three minutes a week can make a difference. Take the stairs all the time. Such a simple change can deliver a mental break in a busy day as well as the physical benefit. Do what you love. Having exercise on your to do list creates a lot of stress, so think about what you did before you became an executive, say in your college life, and try to reconnect with some of the sport and leisure activities that you enjoyed before.

How could businesses promote well-being among their staff to improve performance?

There have been many different approaches in the last few years. Raising awareness on an official level, by HR in wellness programs for example, has had mixed results. It can stigmatize certain people such as those who are overweight. It creates a vicious circle – research has shown stress to slow down our metabolism, thereby making it harder to lose weight.

Giving out fitness trackers is also problematic. It blurs the boundaries between work and personal time. What executives should do is start with small changes in their daily routines: get away from their desk for lunch, spend less time chained to the smart phone. When top executives have good habits, it motivates others. Businesses should also realize that work is no longer about "desktime" and allow their employees more flexibility and the trust to get on with delivering the best results.

How has your experience at OWP been?

OWP is a great week. The atmosphere is fantastic. I have taught at a lot of business schools around the world but OWP really includes a unique mix of fun and impactful learning which allows me to enjoy the experience as both a student and teacher. I was particularly inspired by the Solar Impulse team last year in Lausanne and am looking forward to returning as well as a first visit to the Singapore edition later in the year.

Dr. MacGregor's work is detailed in the recently published book, "Sustaining Executive Performance", which offers today's leaders the foundations for developing a new model of lifelong, personal advancement.

Find out more about Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP).

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