Panel discussions

The Fitness Habits of Successful CEOs

Read Time:14 Minute

Prof Gautam Ahuja: Life can be very stressful and a management career can be particularly hard. Our objective is to make us to do something about our health. We are not health experts. Three successful CEOs who also take care of their health meticulously will share with us how they were able to handle the pressures of the job and yet, maintain a healthy lifestyle. Let’s try and break the inertia of doing nothing, especially in the backdrop of Covid-19. We may build a variety of ideas but we need to see what works for each one of us, taking a doctor’s advice.

A Note of Caution: Please do not make any lifestyle changes based on the input shared by the panellists without prior consultation with your doctor/ health care provider.

V Balaraman: Getting a professional career is everyone’s ambition. Getting into a large multinational organisation seems to be the ultimate step in a person’s career. There’s a lot of glamour attached it: high pay with perquisites, international assignments and travel, reputable designation and societal admiration, and excellent marriage prospects for those who are not married. Such a career is also a trap, which many people are not aware of. Once you get into an executive position, the passion for achieving more and more never stops. That can become a golden handcuff. Most executives compromise life for their work. They also sacrifice health, nutrition and rest. There is a constant adrenaline rush leading to stress, which is a silent killer. A challenge makes us produce adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol—the three hormones that shutdown the normal repairing mechanism of the body. Habit formation is very essential. I have found that walking for 2 hours or jogging for 30 minutes a day is very helpful to get a good sleep and keep you fit.

Nandu Nandkishore: I have a YouTube channel—“Insights with Nandu,” where I have posted many small videos on various topics, including on health.

To succeed in a career, you need to stay alive and stay healthy. If you have a serious health condition at 45, it is unlikely that you will have career growth. ~ Nandu Nandkishore

For most people, life follows a certain pattern. They are conceived at minus 270 days; there is a period of rapid growth for 1000 days, a continued growth for 5000 days, then a further 10,000 days as a young adult, 10,000 days at middle age and 1000 days of old age. That adds up to 36,500 days. Eventually they fall of the cliff.

Many people in the corporate life follow a sub-optimal curve. In India, typically, people fall off the cliff after 26,500 days of life. Beyond a certain point, it is difficult to go back to the optimal curve but it is possible to correct midway and move forward. Not only can we extend our life but also lead a healthy life. We cannot change the past but we can manage the future.

The second insight is that in the last thousand days of our life, the healthcare cost becomes much more than the rest of the life. It can be stressful for the family and friends, especially if the decline is long and painful. So, if you really want to take care of your family, take care of your health.

To succeed in a career, you need to stay alive and stay healthy. If you have a serious health condition at 45, it is unlikely that you will have career growth. You yourself may like to slow down your pace.

What determines which curve we are on? It is influenced by genetics, epigenetics, our “second genome” and our lifestyle.

If we take on a lifestyle which is significantly different from our ancestors, we may be asking the body to do something for which is it not prepared for. ~ Nandu Nandkishore

Epigenetics is basically the science of how the environment affects gene expression. For instance, our body and gene expression have been profoundly affected and “designed” by the lifestyle of our forefathers, over the last several generations. If we take on a lifestyle which is significantly different from our ancestors, we may be asking the body to do something for which is it not prepared for.

The next important thing is the ‘second genome,’ which is the microbiome or good bacteria inside us, particularly in the gut area. There are intriguing research findings (in the public domain) to the effect that diseases like Alzheimer and coronary heart disease, though multi-factorial, are also correlated with reduced levels of gut bacterial diversity or even the bacteria in the mouth. So what can we do? We can eat a diverse diet rich in fruits, fibre, plant-based food and foods which have good bacteria, such as yoghurt.

There are many elements to lifestyle, and they are:
• Exercise for body and mind
• Diet (What, when and how)
• Sleep
• Hydration, which is the need to drink adequate water
• Stress management.

For an adult, eight hours of sleep is required. There is research that when we have deep sleep, the spinal fluid is pumped into the brain to cleanse the brain of dead cells periodically. There are many who are chronically sleep deprived and dehydrated. As all these things are in our control, with the right attitude, we can make use of them all.
Exercise for the mind is the same as for any other muscle. We use it or lose it. If we do the same exercise again and again, the body gets used to it. To build a new muscle, we have to shock the body with a new exercise. It applies to brain also. We need to treat the brain by doing unfamiliar activities. If you write with your right hand, try writing with your left hand. If you are an English speaker, learn to speak Tamil. A healthy body contributes to a healthy mind.

Diet and BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate): BMR is the rate at which we burn calories even when we sleep. BMR starts to rise from 6 am to mid-day, when there is daylight. Then it declines. Our ancestors ate in the 12 hour window between 6 am and 6 pm. Our body is used to fasting between 12 to 14 hours a day. The biggest meal of the day should be when BMR is rising. The smallest meal of the day must be taken when BMR is at its low.

In our fast paced lifestyle, we tend to take our biggest meal of the day at 8 pm. When we do that, we invite diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. According to the science of intermittent fasting, we can fast for 12 to 14 hours a day. Every once in a while, we can extend the fast to 24 hours a day, after consulting our doctor. Fasting is a ritual in many religions. Done under medical supervision, this can be a good complement to exercising.

Stress is part of life. A small amount of stress is always good for us. When you are under stress for a long period of time, the adrenalin and cortisol levels too remain high for a long time. That results in the narrowing of the arteries. Endorphin and Oxytocin are good chemicals produced by the body and these are entirely under our control.

Endorphin is produced when we do exercise and it de-stresses our body. Oxytocin is also called the cuddle hormone. It is released when we cuddle our babies, dogs or embrace our loved ones, in a platonic sense. Oxytocin dilates the blood vessels. In a TED talk on “Stress,” Kelly McGonigal says that how our body responds to stress is a function of our attitude. In my experience, I have found that whenever I was stressed, the best came out of me. How do you deal with stress can be a very important part in the way you manage your life.

We have known that an average adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep. But many people believe that they need less hours of sleep. ~ Prof Gautam Ahuja

How can we change our behaviour? We need to have the right attitude and understanding. After retirement, only your family and true friends will stay around you and give you company. So treat them well. More importantly, if you do anything for three weeks, it becomes your habit.

Gautam: We have known that an average adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep. But many people believe that they need less hours of sleep. Many don’t get sleep easily.

Nandu: Sleep disorders are often related to stress. Good exercising techniques will help us to get good sleep. Having a drink is definitely not a good way to get sleep. Regarding diet, I don’t want to go into the “what” part of it because there’s so much of stuff out there; our body is designed to suit the dietary pattern followed by our great grandparents. So the closer we stick to what they followed, the better it is for us.

Pandit: In 1979, I picked up a book in Higginbotham’s, Chennai: Total Fitness in 30 minutes a week by Laurence Morehouse Ph.D who headed the Human Performance Laboratory in UCLA, and Leonard Gross. Dr. Morehouse’s team worked on the fitness regime of NASA astronauts. He then developed these principles for common people and what he has prescribed for the common man is still valid today.

Your fitness goal is important. Do you want to build your body like Hrithik Roshan, or have the fitness level of Novak Djokovich? Or do you want to keep yourself fit and be free of illness? Most of us spend 10 to 12 hours a day at work. After we go back home, we should have the energy to spend quality time with our family. The principles that I am going to spell out are for this common group of people i.e., professionals and executives.

There are two components to overall health: Physical health and mental health. There is a strong connection between the two. Physical health influences mental health and vice versa. The key ingredients of physical health are exercise, diet, supplements and sleep.

Research has shown that genes play a very important role in our overall health. However, some of Tthe latest research shows that lifestyle has a major impact on our health. Even those who are predisposed with heart problems, diabetes, BP, etc., can significantly reverse their conditions by exercise and lifestyle management.

Exercise has four components:
• Cardiovascular
• Muscle strength
• Endurance and
• Flexibility

Cardiovascular fitness is for making your heart fit and stronger. Any exercise that increases your heart rate is good for your heart; for instance, brisk walking, jogging, treadmill, swimming and cycling. At what level, should we exercise? Our resting heart rate is roughly 72 per minute. We must have a target heart rate at which we must exercise.

Target Heart Rate = (220 – Your age) x (A certain %)

The percentage varies according to your level of fitness. Initially, you may start at 50% and over a period of time, scale it to 80%. Depending on your body condition, this could take even a year. Ideally, you should be exercising at 80% for about 20 to 30 minutes. At that level, your heart is conditioned to be at its peak.

Muscular strength is about how much weight you can lift. Endurance is about how long you can hold it. You need to build both muscular strength and endurance. Training your large muscles like thigh muscles and chest muscles is a sure way of keeping your metabolism in a good condition.

You can either go to a gym and lift weights or work at home on your body weight. There are a number of books on calisthenics, which can help. The concept of progressive overload is also a significant one. If you lift the same weight for 3 months, it is still not a good exercise because the muscles get used to that weight. So you need to build it up progressively. Muscles build and repair themselves as we get micro tears during exercising. As we age, muscles will not build that much but we can maintain at the plateau level.

To prevent damages to muscles and joints, flexibility exercises are required. A good warm up and a cool down are absolutely essential. We can do ‘asanas’ or basic stretch exercises, mainly for the lower back, neck, shoulders and knees. As we sit at our desk for 10-12 hours a day, it can have a big impact on our spinal cord. Do not sit for more than an hour. Get up, go for a stroll, move your limbs and come back. Build in a flexibility program throughout your fitness regime.

Physical Exercise: Remember the acronym FITT—Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type. We can plan a programme of 30 to 45 minutes a day, at least for five days in a week. Do cardio workout for 3 days, exercise for the muscle for 2 days and flexibility on all the days. Even if are travelling, you can do it in the place where you are staying.

The second aspect of physical health is diet: Eat a balanced diet with proteins, carbohydrates (mostly low glycemic index) and fats (mostly monosaturated fats). For every meal, fill your stomach to 80%. If you take a healthy balanced diet, you don’t need supplements. Still, if you need, consider Omega 3, Calcium, Vitamin B, zinc and magnesium supplements.

The final ingredient for physical health is sleep: For the body and mind to recover, it is important to have 6 to 8 hours of sleep. The key to getting a good sleep is to have a regular routine. Everyday get to bed at the same time, say 10 PM and wake up at the same time, say 6 AM.

For mental health, there are four elements:
• Cognitive fitness
• Emotional fitness
• Spiritual
• Purpose

Cognitive fitness and Emotional fitness have already been covered by Mr. Nandkishore. Following spiritual practices and having a purpose which beyond just working, will add immensely to mental health. Particularly as you near retirement these become even more important. To sum up:
• Have a Fitness goal
• Do physical exercise regularly
• Have a balanced diet and supplements as required
• Get good sleep
• Take care of mental health

Gautam: Can you tell us how we can stay in a fitness program in a disciplined way?
Pandit: It’s a million dollar question. The motivation has to come from two areas. First, think about your family, the quality time that you can spend with them and your energy levels. Second, have a metric. For instance, heart rate monitoring is a metric that can be tracked. At what percentage, I am doing now? Can I increase it next month? This can keep you motivated.

In my experience too, I have found that when we are stressed, good hydration is required to bring our heart rate to the basal level of 72 per minute. ~ V Balaraman

Majority of the people who play golf, play it for total passion. When I asked what motivates them, a couple of people told me that they are competing against themselves and not against others, to raise their performance each day.

Gautam: Some of the things that we do in corporate life can be repositioned in our personal lives too. We say what gets measured, improves. I have found that fitness trackers provide amazing information. I do a program on Healthcare Strategy where I involve doctors. They tell me that people take their data from fitness trackers to their doctors as inputs. So we have to use the trackers wisely. Also, settle on a fitness routine that works for you.

Pandit: Even if you don’t have a heart rate monitor, standing still in a place, you can count your pulse for 15 seconds. Multiply this by 4 and you will get your heart rate. Most equipment in the gym have heart rate monitors.

Balaraman: Nandu talked about hydration. In my experience too, I have found that when we are stressed, good hydration is required to bring our heart rate to the basal level of 72 per minute.

Gautam: If your urine is yellow, that’s a general reminder to tell you that you are not adequately hydrated. So drink more water. In the typical Indian living environment, what are some of the low hanging fruits that people can pick up to improve their health?

Nandu: Walking, running, body weight exercises, and yoga—all these are easily available to us. It’s a question of our choosing to do it.

Pandit: Laurence talks about seven minutes of exercise at home. It includes jogging on the spot, doing push ups and improving progressively. You don’t need fancy equipment.

Balaraman: You can just have a mat and do 36 surya namaskars. You’ll not get a back problem. It’s both yoga and a cardiovascular exercise.

Gautam: Air quality is nowhere near what is required. You can get a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) purifier. Make sure that the filter is clean. The other option is to download an app that gives the air quality index for that day. Air quality is going to have a big impact on our health in the next 25 years and we need to fix it from today.

To sum up, the takeaways from the session are:
• Take charge of your own health
• You can do it
• Find the right exercise that works for you
• Speak to the right people to find out what is right for you
• Build a routine and make your habits work for you
• Diet, exercise, sleep and stress management are all important to keep up a good health n