The Samurai Spirit: Executive Fitness a Necessity, Not a Luxury

By Lindsey Townsend

Despite demanding clients, overcommitted schedules, and never enough hours in the day, many top executives still make fitness a priority.

These achievers have one thing in common: they make their exercise appointments as non-negotiable as their most important client presentation. They don’t have the time. They make the time.

“People make so many justifications for not exercising. A lot of my clients are driven, Type-A achievers, and I tell them that all the achievement in the world isn’t worth much if you can’t master the most important thing in your life: your health,” says Sean O’Malley, director of strength and conditioning and co-owner of Fit Health Club in North Dallas.

Mike Kratze believes that philosophy. “We start our days early in this business, but everyone knows that my commitment is to be out the door to exercise at 5:00. That appointment is just like a 7:30 a.m. planning meeting. There’s no excuse to miss a meeting, so I don’t give myself an opportunity to miss an exercise session,” says Kratze, owner and president of Hawk Transport, a coast-to-coast trucking firm. Kratze has lost 45 pounds since attending a Wellness Program at the Cooper Clinic that he calls “the best experience of my life. I was turned off to exercise, but Cooper turned me back on.”

His current routine includes three days of cardio training and two days weight training each week with his “secret weapon,” a personal trainer. “You’ve got to commit to it because you’ll feel and look so much better. It’s a lifestyle change: no pills, no magic bullets,” he says. According to Connie Tyne, executive director of the Cooper Wellness Program, Kratze’s plan for working exercise into his daily schedule is a good one. “Write it down in your daytimer! Two 30-minute sessions with a personal trainer each week, as close to your home or office as possible, will take care of your strength training requirements,” she says.

For those with serious health issues, finding a therapeutic form of exercise can be life-changing. Fran Wittenberg-Cashen, principal of Gallier and Wittenberg, Inc., a marketing, advertising and public relations firm, was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine) at age 13. As an adult, several spinal fusions and a partial rod removal left her in constant pain. She tried everything for relief including acupuncture, chiropractic, and injections, but nothing clicked until she met physical therapist Lisa Ann McCall.

“Her program literally changes the way you move 24 hours a day. I now walk, sit, stand, bend and sleep in a way that makes me healthier,” she says. Her new routine includes 20 minutes of daily body balance movements in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening. “Two to three times a week, I ride a bike, and twice a week I do deep water aerobics; once a week I go to physical therapy, and I practice the principles throughout the day. It’s the only thing that has helped control my pain,” she says.

For executives who spend life on the road, staying in shape presents additional challenges. “My schedule is as hectic as they come, with travel to both coasts and overseas numerous times each year,” says Gary M. Lawrence, chair of the Mergers & Acquisitions Group of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, L.L.P. In response, Lawrence finds it easiest to work out in the morning with a run on the treadmill and a light weight routine. He chooses hotels with fitness centers whenever possible and sticks with his usual low-fat diet of fish, vegetables, and fruit while eating out.

According to Lawrence, the emotional and spiritual benefits he receives from fitness are just as essential as the physical ones. He took a silent retreat to an Episcopal monastery and went flyfishing in Wyoming. “These short trips help me keep in mind there is a great deal more at work in human affairs than a Concorde flight to Paris, a contract to be negotiated, and a deal to be closed,” he says.

To increase your chances of sticking with a fitness routine, Amy Simpson, fitness director with the Health and Fitness Connection, suggest focusing on the process, not the end result, and building slowly. “Think how much your health is worth to you. If you exercise just five minutes today four times a week and add one minute of activity every other time you exercise, in a few months you’ll be exercising for 30 minutes at a time. Many people can’t imagine themselves exercising that long at first, but everyone can accomplish five minutes of activity. Make a plan just like you do with your business, setting short- and long-term goals, and set those exercise appointments with yourself,” she says.

At 61, Bob Bassman, chairman and CEO of Kaye/Bassman International Corp., an executive search firm, finds that powerlifting gives him an edge that younger men envy. He is currently the American World Powerlifting and Bench Press champion and holds the World Powerlifting Congress record for deadlifting. His secret? Desire. “I wasn’t born with an overabundance of speed, strength, or height, but I haven’t met too many people with my intensity. We’re not born with the mindset of champions. It has to be learned and practiced,” he says.

Bassman regularly incorporates his beliefs into staff meetings, talking about concepts like goal setting, delayed gratification, and performance mastery. “Whether business or sport, the formula is the same: visualize your goal. Develop your battle plan. Attack it with intensity, check your results, and adjust accordingly. You’ll achieve what you want if you stick with it long enough,” he says. His enthusiasm is so contagious that half of his staff has taken up weightlifting.

Setting a good example for employees and coworkers, as Bassman does, not only increases productivity and morale--it also impacts the bottom line. It’s estimated that 50-70% of health care costs are related directly to lifestyle habits, and research shows that participation in health promotion activities can reduce workplace accidents by as much as 50% and decrease the average number of days employees are absent by 4.5 days per year.

In response, some managed care companies such as Prudential HealthCare have developed wellness programs offering discounts on vitamins, health club memberships, and fitness equipment to encourage members to become proactive about their health. “Managed care plans strive to provide the best care possible for their members when they are ill, but helping them stay well is of paramount importance. Employees benefit by enjoying better health, and employers gain by having a healthier workforce that is less expensive to insure,” says Carl King, vice president of health plan operations for Prudential HealthCare of North Texas.

For the quickest exercise “bang for the buck,” though, many busy executives around town say that nothing beats running. For Kelly Charles, media relations director with the Hart Agency and a single mother of three, running is therapy. “It’s my clearing house to think about things and solve problems. For someone who doesn’t have a lot of time, like myself, it delivers maximum results in minimum time,” she said. “I run at 5:00 a.m. four to six miles a day, six days a week, with a group of friends from the Las Colinas Sports Club. After running, I work out with free weights in the gym. I clean up and get to my office before 8:00 a.m. feeling ready to “tackle the day,” said Phil Baker, president of Baker Commercial Realty.

John Eaton, president and CEO of Thomas Global, a management consulting firm, is also a runner. His formula for exercise is simple: “Move forward at the fastest pace possible for 20 minutes or more--as many times as you can per week. There’s no substitute for good physical condition. My energy level and memory retention are much higher. There’s simply no other way you’re going to be able to improve your longevity, self-assurance, and mental disposition.”

For long-term results, Cooper’s Tyne warns against planning large blocks of time for aerobic exercise. Instead, she suggests getting up 10-15 minutes early and working up a sweat through jogging, walking or biking several times a week. “That's a great start toward your daily 30-minute exercise requirement. Taking the stairs, shooting baskets with the kids, or walking the dog will take care of the rest. Our research has proven time and again: small changes maintained over a long period of time produce the desired results with a minimum of effort!” she says.

The bottom line, according to O’Malley, comes down to whether or not a person cares enough to make the time to commit to good physical health. “Does your definition of success come from the amount of money in your wallet or from how you feel and look? If you get home from work every night and you’re so tired you can’t enjoy spending time with your family, you’re not successful in my book,” he says.