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Size (of Your Telomeres) Matters

Telomere SneakersWell, in case you need more evidence that moving is better than not, here you go. In a study reported by the New York Times this week, exercise really does slow the aging process.  And for those of us in the middle years of life, the effect is even greater.

It turns out that exercise in moderation and with some variety (walking, biking, running, etc.) prevents the fraying and shortening of telomeres, which are essentially “tiny caps found on the end of DNA strands, like plastic aglets on shoelaces.” Scientists believe that they protect the cell’s DNA during the process of cell division. Stronger and longer telomeres mean more youthful cell reproduction. Nice…

It’s late October in Minnesota (and, for that matter, everywhere else).  Here, that means a quick romp through Fall when, just as you begin to fully appreciate the magic of crisp days and Autumn sun shine, a cold wind blows through, knocking down all the leaves and depriving you of the will to move too far from the comfort of your own bed.

Exercise can feel a lot easier when the sun’s up, the birds are blaring, and the day demands to be taken advantage of. The onset of cold, dark days gives us some ready made excuses to just hunker down.

But winter brings with new kinds of opportunity to get and/stay active. For those of us living above the 45th parallel, once we get past the rather dismal month of November and sleet gives way to snow, there’s almost no better time to throw yourself into the kinds of exercise that the telomere study endorses.

Dress warmly, throw on a pair of boots and take a long trudge in the snow. It’s like running on the beach with a few obvious differences.

When time permits, bust out the cross-country skis and head to your nearest park. Some of the happiest, fittest older people I’ve ever met were found chugging along on cross-country skis.

If your climes are more temperate than ours, well, you have even less reason not to get out and lay claim to a piece of the anti-aging elixir of movement. It’s far too easy to over-think this whole world of diet and exercise.  What I’ve learned in my fitness travails is really pretty simple:  When in doubt, just get out the door and start moving. That’s the hardest part. Get past that 10 seconds of indecision, and you’re home free.

Your telomeres will thank you for it.

12 Hours. 14 Miles. 25 Amazing People…

..and 3 of the most important words in life and work.

Last weekend I completed my first GORUCK tough challenge in Minneapolis, along with a group of ridiculously inspiring people.

Mog Mile

These events occur at night. Generally from 9 pm to 9 am. And napping is not part of the experience! Over those 12 hours, we covered 14+ miles with roughly 40 pound weighted backpacks and conducted drills that included carrying each other on stretchers (thankfully without the battlefield conditions).

It was the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever taken on. But, together, we were 25 determined people working together as a team.

You know what really hit me the most (apart from the sleep deprivation)? The experience really came down to three surprisingly simple words imparted to us by our group leader or “cadre,” a member of the US military’s special forces, at about 2:10 am.

First, empathy: To succeed as a team, we have a duty to understand what those around us are going through and to respond with humanity and immediacy – the essence of the Army Ranger’s motto of “sua sponte” – latin for “of your own accord.” Without empathy, we’re just a bunch of individuals out for a very long, tough walk.

Second, respect: Teams rise and fall on the respect. If we can’t show respect to ourselves, to one another and to those we rely on outside of the team, we’re hosed.

Third, courage: Without courage, we let our egos and individual desires overcome the greater needs of the team. Courage allows us to rise above ourselves long enough to do what’s right, even if that means taking the harder path.

This experience totally put me outside of my comfort zone, and I can’t believe I’m thinking of doing another one in 2016! But I also know that it’s easy compared to the challenges that many people in the world face. I’m just grateful to have experienced it with some awesome individuals who, over the course of the night, became a team.

Move or Die: Early Lessons From a Rookie Author

I’m writing a book.  Saying it out loud (when it’s your first) is like publicly declaring your intention to marry someone.  You don’t do it unless you’re serious and once you say it, you better follow through.

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Here’s the working title: “Move or Die: 5 Critical Lessons from Companies that Optimize Health and Business Performance.”

This is a hugely important topic for today’s business leaders and managers. The rapid pace of change in business – whether it’s a lean startup or a mature enterprise – requires deeply creative, engaged and healthy employees. Great businesses – ones that find a way to fully integrate ingenuity, creativity, engagement and wellness into their cultures – are those that not only thrive, but dominate, their markets.

My basic thesis is this: As our world grows in complexity, businesses have to be both smart and healthy, to borrow from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage. They can’t just be smart. Unhealthy teams will, sooner than later, undermine the entire business, no matter how smart its people and business model. Flip things around and smart, healthy teams become a clear competitive advantage.

Taking it further, can organizational health really occur if the biological beings that make up the organization aren’t also truly healthy in the fullest sense?  That means their physical, mental, emotional energies and spiritual self (or, if you’re not religious, your “why”) are balanced and strong. Fundamentally, without some reasonable measure of physical health, we’re fighting an uphill battle to respond creatively and resiliently to everything we face in work and life. 

This journey has already taught me a lot – both about the book-writing quest and the undeniable relationship between wellness and business performance.

So, here are few lessons I’ve learned along the way:

  1. First and foremost, people are amazingly generous in giving a fledgling author their time.  In the past few weeks, I’ve had incredible conversations with acclaimed Blue Zones author, Dan Buettner; Maureen Sullivan of Salo, LLC (the first Blue Zones workplace); and Brian Oss and Seth Serxner of Optum. I owe a debt of gratitude to them and everyone who’s helping me in this project.
  2. Having a wellness program doesn’t mean it achieves real value on investment, to use the term pioneered by Seth Serxner of Optum. That is, does your wellness program create meaningful and sustained engagement, reduce stress, support creativity, and strengthen teams? Corporate wellness programs will only truly succeed when wellness becomes part of the organization’s DNA.
  3. The environment we’re in and the people we spend the most time with in it profoundly shape human behavior. If you’re not as healthy as you should be, don’t beat yourself up too much. Our environments are a big part of the problem. How many places of work intentionally organize the workspace to support movement and health? Bike racks, locker rooms with showers, standing desks are relatively small investments that can add up to profound changes. Couple these changes with leadership that makes wellness the norm, and your company will be on its way to creating an unstoppable organization.

I can’t wait to share this book when it’s completed.  Meanwhile, if your company is doing something great in wellness, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line at: eric@highimpactboards.com.

 

 

Here’s The One Thing Wellness Apps Won’t Do

One of my Google News Alerts sends me articles on corporate wellness programs. Here’s a sampling of what I typically get.

Geekwire article

PulseIt Magazine

PR Newswire

You’ll note that a common thread in these (and many of the alerts I receive) involves, not surprisingly, digital platforms to support corporate wellness through incentives, information, and wellness tracking. All good.

The one thing they can never do, however, is to get us to move.

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Sedentariness (probably a word that has existed only since the invention of the cubicle) takes a huge toll on our health. Between traveling to work (typically in a car), sitting at our desk and then driving home again, it’s safe to say that we spend nearly 2/3 of our waking hours at largely sedentary work activities.

No digital platform, however smart and sophisticated it may be, can move us into better health and fitness.

As I’ve written about in a previous blog post, the benefits to companies from more active employees are huge. But not just in the way that’s typically measured (i.e., disease prevention and management). More active, fitter employees generally manage stress better, are more creative and engaged and ultimately better problem solvers.  Tougher to measure but even more business critical.

What can companies do to help employees be more active?

  1. Leaders must make health and wellness a business priority and lead by example.
  2. Create the basic physical infrastructure to support healthier employees (onsite bike lockers, high quality shower/changing facilities, etc.). These additions are a lot less expensive than onsite gyms and remove a big obstacle for employees to do something healthy.
  3. Make it OK for employees to build an hour of physical activity into the work-day if their meetings and deadlines allow it. Is it OK to arrive at your 2:30 pm staff meeting flushed from a good run or are you the one that gets the cross eyed look from co-workers?
  4. Meet people where they are on the fitness continuum. If a brisk walk is all that someone can or wants to do, great! Encourage it. If they need more a high-intensity workout, what can the company do to support them?
  5. Last, if you really want to transform your company’s health, identify a high-quality outside vendor that can organize safe, functional and engaging fitness activities onsite.

Yes, these are likely to challenge the status quo. But, should we be satisfied with the status quo? And, what’s the cost of not having more energized, less stressed, more engaged individuals and teams?

 

 

 

Small Steps. Big Results

You’re smart, right? You don’t need a step by step process to get you through the day? Hell no. You’ve always done great just winging it, improvising. That’s what I used to think.

Until, that is, I needed to really revamp, retool my life, my career, my mindset. Here’s the reality. Everything’s fine until it isn’t.  And the only way to both prepare yourself for the ups and downs of life and “future proof” your career, is to go back to basics.

If we want to change and improve every day, we need a simple framework that reflects where and how we want to improve and one that allows us to track incremental improvement along the way.

In his great new book, Triggers, Marshall Goldsmith offers an incredibly simple and effective technique. Identify the areas in life where you want to get better. Write down 5-10 daily questions reflecting these areas that you ask yourself everyday (or better, have someone else ask you the questions to hold yourself accountable).

Each question begins with: “Did I do my best to…”

Now, write the questions in your notebook or input into a spreadsheet (whatever works) and then chart your progress on a scale from 1-10.  Do this daily for 30-60 days and see the magic happen.

As Goldsmith notes, change is simple, but not easy. (Full disclosure, I’m on my second attempt to stick to this routine). Adherence is the key.

To help make this more concrete, here are some paraphrased notes from Triggers, with 6 powerful questions that, by themselves, would go a long way to making us better, healthier, more engaged people.

  1. Did I do my best to set clear goals today? Executives demoralized by their leaders’ fecklessness became dramatically more engaged after they started setting their own direction for the day instead of futilely waiting to receive it from someone else.
  2. Did I do my best to make progress towards my goals today?
  3. Did I do my best to find meaning today? Review Viktor Frankl’s 1946 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s up to us, not an outside agency like our company, to provide meaning. This question challenges us to be creative in finding meaning in whatever we are doing.
  4. Did I do my best to be happy today? Happiness goes hand in hand with meaning. You need both.
  5. Did I do my best to build positive relationships today? We’re reminded to continue growing our positive relationships, even create new ones, instead of
    judging our existing relationships. One of the best ways to “have a best friend” is to “be a best friend.”
  6. Did I do my best to be fully engaged today? It’s a self-fulfilling dynamic: the act of measuring our engagement elevates our commitment to being engaged – and reminds me that we’re personally responsible for our own engagement.

Stick to this practice for 30-60 days and you’ll go a long way to making profound, lasting change for the better.

 

 

The Secret to Picking a Winning Portfolio

If your only investment strategy was to buy shares in companies that treat their employees well, your portfolio would’ve outperformed the S&P 500 by 2 to 1. Think about it.  2 to 1. 

Add that to my coulda, woulda, shoulda list!

Both Fortune, which publishes the 100 Best Companies list, and The Street, yielded the same basic conclusion: Companies whose employees rated them highly outperform their peers by a wide margin.

Fortune

According to The Street article from earlier this year, “investors would have seen a 243.3% return in a portfolio that held the stocks of the inaugural list from 2009 through 2014. In comparison, the S&P 500 had a return of 121% over the five-year period.”

Familiar names on the 100 Best list, like SAS (#4), Twitter (#24) Google (#1), General Mills (#80), and Zappos (#86) share a common thread: They invest heavily in employee opportunities, health and wellness. In return, their employees deliver consistent innovation, customer satisfaction and high bottom line results.

The foregoing tells a story that I intend to expand on in a book I’ve just started writing called Move or Die, which will focus on the intersection of health, fitness and corporate performance.  Clearly, there’s growing and inescapable evidence that the best companies to invest in are also the best to work for.

 

 

 

 

Find Your Routine (Then Break It)

My bio notes that I’m a Crossfit adherent. I love what this approach to fitness has taught me.

  1. Tribes make you get better, faster (and are more fun than bowling alone)
  2. The tortoise was wrong (high intensity beats slow and steady)
  3. Physical fitness builds mental toughness
  4. Boredom hates variation.

For nearly 4 years, all of these held true for me, until recently, when it didn’t.  In particular, the last one.

Having been a member at a single Crossfit gym for this entire time, I started feeling, well, bored!

Some things changed with the gym, but at its core, I simply become too familiar with the same four walls, the same parking lot that we use for sprinting, the same equipment and, despite Crossfit’s focus on variability in the workouts, I became too familiar with all the various movements and drills.

So, as hard it was to leave this tribe, I had to strike out and do something different if I wanted to challenge myself in new ways and get better at fitness.

So that’s what I did.

Two weeks ago, I joined up with a group based on similar principles as Crossfit: high intensity, highly varied workouts done in about an hour.

But, unlike Crossfit gyms, there’s no gym. This business is entirely based outdoors in a local park – on purpose.

Why?

As a business model, it’s a lot less expensive. But for clients, it means you get the benefit — and the challenge if you live in a place like Minnesota — of dealing with whatever nature throws at you. And for us, that can mean beautiful days of low humidity, sweltering heat, rain, snow, blistering cold and just about anything else you can imagine.

(If you need convincing, here are 6 good reasons to go outdoors with your workout.)

This group also ditches barbells, kettle bells and perfectly perfectly symmetrical pull up bars and replaces them with sandbags, random park equipment and rocks (yes, rocks). In other words, movements that are even closer to the challenges you’ll face in real life.

Guy Lifting Rock

Inspired by military special forces training, this approach introduces even more variability than anything Crossfit can dream up.

The bottom line for me is that I found an amazing, motivating routine in Crossfit and stuck to it religiously and then, when the routine began to hold me back, I broke it.

Change is always a little uncomfortable but the friends I made through Crossfit will always be there (I hope!). And, joining a new tribe just expands my network and experiences even further.

The motivation hasn’t changed, but sometimes you need to take your routine and break it if you want to get better.

Is your routine too routine?

Keep Going

For 3 months in 1905, a small town architect and a team of builders in the remote stretches of western Ireland scaled a 2,500 foot mountain each week.  Living on the summit throughout the week and returning on the weekends, they set about to build a small chapel.

The motivation to keep going might be the biggest mountain any of us climb. Whether it’s to keep moving literally up the mountain, or to the gym, or to reach our career goals, to fight through illness or grief or through the grueling years of early parenting – we rise and fall on our ability to keep pushing ahead when things get tough.

Call it the luck of the Irish, but my son Eamon captured this image accidentally during a truly memorable trip to Ireland that we just completed. The “accident” was capturing the words “Keep Going” on the mountain in question in County Mayo (where my mom was born and raised) called Croagh Patrick. He stopped to snap a shot capturing the scale of the hike (note the small dots of hikers to the far left and top). Afterwards, he noticed the foreground message.

Croagh Patrick
Less legendary than the story of St. Patrick, but certainly more verifiable (and more interesting to me at least), the architect and lead builder of the chapel was my great grandfather, Walter Henaghan, and his son, my grandfather, Patrick, who was 15 years old at the time.

Chapel CP

Patrick led pack animals up to the summit twice per week with supplies for the team of builders – no easy feat at any age.

For us, it was one of the hardest short hikes we’ve done. Only 4 hours in total, but getting to the top felt like a real accomplishment, in addition to the deep connection this place represents to our family.

I could write for days about this trip – one that’s been a goal of mine since Eamon and his twin sister Ellie were born.

It’s enough for now to note that your inspiration to keep going can be found wherever and whenever you face difficult times – sometimes even when you’re not looking for it. Find it and you’ll become unstoppable.

And, when you reach your goal or power through life’s adversities, the views are always better from the top!

View from CP

 

 

Leadership Lessons from FIFA (Or, What Not to Do If You Want to Sleep At Night)

We are a sports-loving nation and world.  So it’s no surprise that scandals involving sports tend to focus our attention in a way that a banking scandal won’t.

Whether it’s FIFA, or Lance Armstrong’s history of doping, or the NFL’s recent challenges addressing domestic violence and chronic brain injury among its players, our love of sports makes these problems fertile ground for leadership lessons – lessons that can be applied to any organization that depends on the public’s trust. (Are there any organizations of significance that don’t?)

The apparent whole scale corruption by Sepp Blatter and company shines a bright light on three critical leadership pillars within FIFA that were seriously undermined by this scandal: accountability, integrity and transparency.

First, accountability. Up until last week, Blatter could tell the world that FIFA is ultimately accountable to its fans – the literally billions of people who follow the game around the world. Its slogan, ironically, is For The Good of the Game.

FIFA

But, as long suspected, FIFA created and fostered an insular environment that made it accountable only to itself.

As a multi-national organization based in Switzerland with its historically lax non profit laws, FIFA’s weak governing body (nation-members have equal votes regardless of size) could pit rich against poor nations, large against small, greased with payments hidden from view.  Awash in sponsorship money, with few if any meaningful public disclosure requirements (and no term limits for the incumbent president), the organization became a fiefdom run by the man at the top.

Certainly, no major US non-profit or publicly traded company on the NASDAQ or NYSE can operate this way (at least not for long). Accountability to stakeholders, shareholders, customers and regulators is part of the deal.

Then, there’s integrity. Integrity has never been at a higher premium for business, governmental and non profit leaders. Approval for the US Congress, for example, consistently sits at or below 20%, reflecting the endless partisanship and gridlock of the institution. And, while it takes much more than the threat of social media to instill integrity, the ethical lapses by today’s leaders are massively amplified by Twitter and Facebook, fueling further erosion of trust.

High-integrity leaders, on the other hand, command the respect of those they lead because having integrity means having humility and respect for others, values that anchor a leader’s vision,  self-awareness and a willingness to admit mistakes.

It would seem that these traits are sorely lacking in Sepp Blatter.

Last but not least, transparency. In this case, Swiss law up until recently allowed FIFA to operate under the cover of legal darkness.  FIFA was not required to disclose its meeting minutes, operating finances, internal decision-making on the selection of World Cup hosts or the salaries of its executives.

As an old adage goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.  And to paraphrase another one, fungus grows best in darkness under … well you get the point. Transparent leaders invite opportunities – from within their organizations and outside of it – to hear how they and their organizations can improve, how they can become their best.

At The Bolton Group LLC, we’ve coached hundreds of executive leaders and, in our experience, the single most important trigger for improvement is the clarity that comes from open, transparent feedback.  For FIFA to really change post-Blatter, it will need to build a culture of continuous, open feedback. There is no other way.

Accountability. Integrity. Transparency.  Without deep commitment to these pillars, no leader today can be said to have earned that title.

 

 

Memorable Memorial Day Weekend

Sometimes the only way to push yourself is to let others pull you along with them.

Over the weekend, I participated in two workout challenges that put me in a very different frame of mind than the usual Memorial Day focus on barbecues and beer (not that we didn’t also build that in as well!).

First, on Saturday, I joined up with an outdoor, cross-training group called No Quit Fit, founded by Chris Mielke (left side), along with my friend Jim from my regular Crossfit affiliate (red shirt) and his friend Jeff (holding the flag).

Memorial Day RunI’m pretty familiar with reasonably intense one-hour workouts, but what I didn’t quite appreciate was the challenge that these guys had organized afterwards: a 10k run/walk with 30 pounds on our backs.

Unknown to me at the time, the other three were doing this as a self-sponsored run connected to a national event called Racing for Valor that benefits veterans’ group. Averaging a plodding but respectable 13 minute-mile pace, we covered the distance in about 80 minutes, taking turns carrying the flag and getting tons of support along the way from passersby waving and honking horns.

Carrying the 30 pounds after a hard workout was pretty darn uncomfortable and made me question why I was doing it, until I recalled what Chris had said earlier during the morning workout: Keep pushing, don’t quit and think about those who gave their life in service and who would’ve done anything to do what we’re doing now.

Two days later on Memorial Day, along with thousands of other gyms around the country, our gym held its annual Murph Challenge – an event named in honor Lt. Michael Murphy – who died in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2005 during a fierce firefight chronicled in the book and movie Lone Survivor. It was one of Lt. Murphy’s favorite training programs: Run a mile, followed by 100 pullups, 200 pushups and 300 airsquats, followed by another run when running is the last thing you want to do (except Murphy did it with an extra 20 pounds on his back!)

Together, we raised nearly $1,000 for the Lt. Michael Murphy Memorial Scholarship Fund, which funds educational scholarships and we enjoyed an amazing experience with 50+ people who don’t give up easily.

In both cases, it’s safe to say that there are few of us who could push ourselves through these challenges without the support, energy, discipline and determination of great people doing it with you. I know I couldn’t.

The only real decision you have to make is a simple one: “yes” or “no?” Will you try or not?

If you can say “yes” at the front-end to whatever challenge takes you a little bit outside yourself, you can and will be able to accomplish it with the right people around you pulling you just as hard you as you’re pushing them.

2015 Memorial Day weekend was truly memorable, giving me a deeper appreciation of those who serve our country and how rewarding a little discomfort with great people can be.

 

 

Toxic or Transformative? (Stress Part 3 of 3)

In today’s workplace (and life), stress is everywhere. It uncomfortably surrounds us like a bad polyester suit.

April was National Stress Awareness Month. So, it’s a fitting time to note that more than 40 percent of American workers report experiencing chronic, workplace stress.  According to Rick Hanson PhD, a California based neuropsychologist and author of Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, chronic stress isn’t just hurting individuals; it’s damaging your business. Quite simply, it “degrades a long list of capabilities with regard to creativity and innovation. It’s harder to think outside of the box, nimbleness and dexterity take a hit, and the response to sudden change is more difficult to manage.”

To put even more bluntly, chronic workplace stress targets and destroys the very traits that high performing businesses in today’s complex, 24/7 global marketplace require. Now, how much stronger would your company be if that number went from 40% to 5% or less?

While stress can impact us all differently and comes from many sources – personal and professional – every company has a simple choice to make. Live with chronic workplace stress and its sizable tax on the business or see it for what is: the enemy of success.

In our experience at The Bolton Group, great leaders and great companies understand that creative problem solving at all levels of the company drives business results. To sustain performance requires constant adaptability and creativity – qualities that can only thrive in what Edward Hess, in his exceptional book Learn or Die, calls high performing learning organizations (HPLOs).

Such companies work hard to foster employee control over decisions, a level of connectedness to shared goals and a sense that what employees do actually matters. W.L. Gore and SAS Institute – consistent top 20 Fortune “Best Places to Work” – stand out as great examples. They live by these values, which are truly the antidotes to toxic workplace stress and the sources of high performance.

Gone are the days when top-down, directive styles of leadership drive sustained performance. Great leaders are great coaches, inviting everyone in the company to grow. They unleash productivity and creativity by building a deep business culture of open, honest communication that asks everyone to engage in creative problem-solving, at every level wherever the opportunity arises.

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, sums it up perfectly in a recent Fast Company article: “The role of the leader in this century is different than in centuries past. It’s to bring people together around this sense of meaning, purpose, and values.” (Couple this with an innovative company-sponsored wellness program that tackles the physical dimension of stress and it’s hard to image not succeeding!)

That’s how great leaders and great companies transform chronic, unproductive stress into creative, transformative energy. So, is your company toxic or transformative?

 

Fight or Flight From Cubicle to “C” Suite – Part 2 of 3

You’re traveling for the 4th time this month. The company’s sales are down and your business unit risks missing its numbers this quarter. You and your team are pulling out all the stops. You’re catching an early morning flight to call on several potential customers.

You’ll miss your daughter’s dance recital (again). Your spouse called this morning about an email from your son’s teacher that his grades are way down. No time to talk. Have to catch a flight. You feel your pulse racing and a slight throbbing in your head. Coffee this morning will help. And a stiff drink before bed should help, or so you think.

Constant multi-tasking, juggling responsibilities, deadlines, errands and to-do lists. On top of that, your diet isn’t what it should be, you’re getting too little sleep and you haven’t exactly been a regular at the gym.

Sound familiar?

lego-coffee-popular-science

For many of us today, that’s what stress looks like. By now, we all know the basic outlines of what stress is, how it feels. But we often forget what purpose it was designed to serve.

“The stress response is a normal adaptive coping response that evolved over hundreds of millions of years to help our ancestors avoid sticks and get carrots,” says Rick Hanson, PhD, a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (New Harbinger, 2009). “It’s natural. What’s also natural, though — and you see it in the wild — is that most stressful episodes are resolved quickly, one way or another. The natural biological, evolutionary blueprint is to have long periods of mellow recovery after bursts of stress.”

For early humans (and other animals in the wild), stress usually meant responding to imminent threats (being hunted) or imminent opportunity (doing the hunting), followed by release and recovery. Flight or fight. It wasn’t, as science and common sense tells us, something we should deal with 10 hours a day.

According to the “The Science of Stress,” posted on Experience Life, here’s what happens when our stress response is activated: “When we experience a stress trigger, the fast-acting part of the nervous system releases adrenaline. Meanwhile, the hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormones, initiating a sequence that finishes with the production of the stress hormone cortisol.”

Now, on the upside, acute stress not only helps us navigate dangerous terrain by heightening our senses and adrenal response, it focuses our attention and all our capacities on critical, short-term problems. It also strengthens our immune system through the release of small proteins called cytokines.  Think of this as the brain’s version of high intensity physical training in short bursts.  It’s uncomfortable and painful but in the right dose, makes you stronger, fitter, better.

On the other hand, chronic stress – where the spigot is turned on but can’t be turned off – is downright dangerous. In this mode, stress floods the body with stress hormones that over time increase our body’s inflammatory response, damaging our immune system and increasing the wear and tear on our cardiovascular system.  And, critical to business, it impairs our ability to think clearly and creatively – the main ingredients in solving complex problems. This is the brain’s version of over-training, which leads to injury and, in the long-run, getting weaker and less fit.

For business (let alone life outside of our work) here’s the challenge: The complex, multi-dimensional, 24/7 world we’re operating in – the one that requires creativity and positivity to navigate effectively – is exactly the world that prevents us from solving the most pressing problems our businesses face when we’re under chronic stress.

The pace of change and disruption in business today is accelerating, and that’s not going to change. So, now more than ever, businesses today need creative, nimble problem solvers capable of both executing on current business plans as well as seeing around corners to new disruptions and new opportunities. Chronically stressed leaders and their employees won’t get you there. Engaged, open and creative problem solvers will.

Just this week, Radio Shack began bankruptcy auction proceedings. While not a shock, it is a reminder of yet another once-significant player in the market failing to adapt and keep pace with change. As this piece on Fox Business online notes, change and adaptation are hard and create stress. And the only way to get ahead of the pace of change is an intentional workplace culture that unleashes positive engagement and creativity – in other words, one free of toxic stress.

How do businesses reconcile the demands of the hyper-connected, hyper-connected world and the need for calmer minds to move the business ahead and see around corners?

That’s the question I’ll explore in my third post.

Fight or Flight from Cubicle to “C” Suite – Part 1

My short bio notes that I’m a cancer survivor.  Eighteen grateful years and counting. Having survived it (big caveat), I can honestly say that cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Why?

Because it taught me things that I could never have learned without it.  A measure of courage when the chips were down; the experience of grace and generosity from others (often strangers) during dark times; to never take for granted the amazing wife I have; deep gratitude for my kids and the experience of being their dad.

Holtz QuoteIt also taught me a thing or two about stress – the chronic kind in which we quite literally stew in our own toxic juices.

My diagnosis of cancer occurred just weeks after the death of my mom, who endured a 5-year battle with ALS. Living half way across the country during some of that time (while I was in graduate school) created for me a personal pressure cooker that I was ill-prepared to handle. My thoughts and energy alternated from my studies to the next time I could book a flight back to Seattle to see her and my dad.

The stress had no place to go.  Sure, I exercised regularly and did my best to focus on, among other things, dating the woman who would become my wife.

But by the time of her death, I was a stress-filled mess. And, while it’s impossible to say for certain, the onset of my non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma immediately following her funeral, seemed like compelling correlation if not causation.

In the next blog or two, I intend to take up the topic of stress in more depth: What we know about it, what I’ve experienced and how we might differentiate as leaders – and as those who follow leaders – productive from toxic stress.

Questions I intend to explore include: When is stress just a normal byproduct of life and when is it poison? Why and when does it go off the rails and become kryptonite? And, when it does, what can do to recognize and deal with it, for ourselves and those around us? Are some of us just wired to deal with it differently? Even with it’s bad rap, isn’t stress useful in driving us forward? Isn’t it a natural response that we developed over millenia to deal with threats (getting eaten) and opportunities (doing the eating)?

Stay tuned for more!

 

Are You Leading By Example?

My good friend and extraordinary youth soccer coach, Aaron Grenz, guest blogs on a topic on which he’s an expert – continuous improvement.  

Less than a year ago, I first came across what is now one of my favorite Jack Welch quotes: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

It is my belief this profound maxim was not intended to only follow that chronological sequence. One ought not conclude that leaders grow themselves before they become leaders, then stop learning in order to develop others. Leaders must always be learning and developing.

When a leader ceases to learn and grow, by extension those around you will cease to grow as well. To my mind, it’s hypocritical when a leader expects those they lead to grow and improve while failing to recognize their own need to do so. We see this principle in other aspects of life.

Earlier in my career, a recurring business travel schedule coupled with a growing family meant I wasn’t physically taking care of myself. The pounds didn’t come all at once, but came slowly and steadily over several years traveling on airplanes and interstates. One of my children jokingly said one day that I looked like I was pregnant. It was both embarrassing and humiliating, but it gave me the motivation I needed to exercise again and eat better. How could I expect my children to grow to become healthy adults when I was clearly failing to do so myself?

I was clearly failing as a leader in my own family. This is a simple and personal example of continuous improvement: If I stop to eat well and exercise, I cease to set a good example for my family as a leader in our household. Since then, I have been sure to make time to exercise regularly and eat healthy foods, and my health has dramatically improved even as I become older. What is the key area where YOU need to continuously improve as a leader in your organization? Are you leading by example in the same key areas of improvement you expect of others?

Leadership Lessons from My 13 Year Old Butterfly-er

My daughter, Ellie (13) swims for a local club with a level of determination and joy that is equal and opposite to what she experienced in land-based sports.

I’m biased of course, but I think she’s also a gifted and natural swimmer. The challenge, though, is that she’s small. Like sprint running events, shorter distance swimming tends to favor longer limbs. So, Ellie has to work that much harder in each of her events. And work hard she does: She’s always striving to get better.

Turns out, though, that Ellie is able to level the genetic playing field a little with maybe the toughest stroke to perform efficiently and which — out of nowhere it seems —  she’s a natural: The butterfly.

I’m in awe of the butterfly. When done well, it’s powerful and explosive.  When done badly (which is more the norm), it looks more like controlled drowning.

When I mentioned to her the other day in anticipation of a big swim meet that she’ll be competing in the 100-yard butterfly, she told me that at her practice, she asked her coach what she could do to improve (Ellie is desperate to get a “B” time so she can qualify for the next level up in competition).

Her coach responded, Ellie told me, with a pause and then said she really couldn’t think of anything because Ellie really has a great butterfly. My first reaction was, “Wow, isn’t that great!”  It was Ellie’s response that surprised and impressed me, although it shouldn’t have.

She didn’t say, “Hey Dad, how cool is that — I’m awesome and don’t need to do anything else.”  When she recounted the story, she frowned a little and said, “If I don’t have something to work on, how am I going to get better?”

“How am I going to get better?”

Ellie showed in that question quite possibly the single most important quality of anyone who actually does get better — the desire (not just willingness) to get specific feedback and to act on it.

Ellie really does have a great coach, but in this instance, she didn’t quite give her what she needed: a concrete change in her technique to improve performance. She’s only 13 and has only become proficient in butterfly in the past year, so she has a lot yet to learn.

In her response to me, Ellie showed what it really takes to improve at anything and reminded me of the incredible power of feedback.  Like Ellie, you have to seek it out, receive it and respond to it if you want to be your best.

If you’re a leader, do you provide real-time coaching and feedback to help your team members get better?

Do you embrace feedback in your job or personal life? If not, ask yourself if you want to repeat what you’ve always done or do you want to be your best.

(If you can’t answer a resounding “yes” to these questions, check out my business partner’s best-selling Kindle e-book on Amazon.com.  I guarantee it will provide you insights and strategies to get to “yes” and transform how you work, lead and live.)

 

 

 

 

Road Warrior Workout – 2

Earlier today, I posted on our gym’s members-only Facebook site a fantastic article about the pitfalls of overtraining from Mark Sisson (Mark’s Daily Apple). It struck an immediate chord with me because I’m aching all over from a couple of challenging workouts this week, which gave me a perfect excuse to stay away from the gym today.

Nevertheless, I get antsy and know that some movement is almost always better than none, so I opted today instead for a short workout that’s functionally beneficial, low impact and easy to replicate almost anywhere.  In short, it’s literally and figuratively an excellent road warrior workout.

Here it is:
Step 1:  Find a 150 yard stretch of road with a reasonable incline (maybe 10-15 degree grade) preferably with no cross traffic to deal with.

Step 2: Starting at the bottom, run or walk to the top as fast as you can.

Step 3: Walk to the bottom and repeat 10 times

That’s it!

In about 20-25 minutes, you’ll have given yourself a complete cardio workout (it’s uphill afterall), that’s very low impact (the hill takes out much of the impact on the way up) and one that gets the entire body functionally moving.

If you want to upgrade, increase your speed or volume and add some spice at the top and bottom. For example, do 5-10 pushups at the bottom and 5-10 air squats below parallel at the top.  If you did nothing but this several times per week, you’d be way ahead of the curve.

Wolfie on Road

Here’s where I accomplished my road workout near our home in the suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota on a brisk 16 degree afternoon with our ironically-named dog, Wolfgang.  If he can do it, you can too!

 

Real Power

Every now and then, after a workout that involves a fair amount of heavy weightlifting, the thought crosses my mind:  “How much weight did I lift in total?” And “how cool is that?!”

Just for fun, I thought it would be interesting to really quantify what I lifted yesterday. The workout involved a total of 36 un-timed deadlifts followed by an ascending ladder of pullups.  Here are the results:

36 deadlifts x 245 lbs each = 8,820 lbs

+

91 kipping pullups x 175 lbs (my bodyweight) = 15,925 lbs

=

24,745 lbs moved (albeit about 3 feet at a time)

Let me state right now that I’m NOT a great weightlifter.  In fact, it would be generous to say I’m middling. But, the workouts I do require it, and I’ve come to appreciate the fact that putting the body under weight and requiring it to respond (i.e., lift the weight) forces it to react in surprising ways.

SuperheroSo, this little thought experiment got me thinking about the need to answer the question:  Why should we even do this stuff? (i.e., lift heavy things). Just Google, for example, “benefits-health-weightlifting” and you’ll find numerous sources citing such benefits as: improving your ability to metabolize glucose (and reduce risk for Type 2 diabetes); increasing bone density; reducing symptoms of depression and enhancing balance and coordination. Note: I didn’t once mention getting big biceps (actually an unlikely outcome in Olympic-style weightlifting – the kind that really matters).

Looked at another way, today’s workout amounted to lifting a 25 lb bag of groceries 990 times! (Sadly, when entered into this awesome calculator, it all added up to just 0.05 horsepower. Did I mention the 990 bags of groceries?).

Now, you might think that’s not exactly relevant to daily life, but it is. Safely lifting this weight builds core strength that comes in pretty handy when you’re hoisting a bag of mulch, a toddler, a heavy back pack or a bag of groceries.  Your body is conditioned for it and far less likely to give out doing regular activities.

Even at my somewhat advanced age of 50, I’m getting incrementally stronger while getting older, with little actual gain in overall mass. Moreover, Olympic-style lifts (unlike muscle-beach arm curls and such) are “compound movements” that require coordination of multiple joints mimicking real-life situations.

Coupled with the effects on metabolism and the overall feeling of being able to do more in everyday situations, it’s hard to argue against the benefits of strength training (even with very light weight) if done safely and under the watchful eye of great coaches.

Make strength training — bodyweight as well as weightlifting — a priority in your fitness regimen. And, you can impress your friends with your superpowers at the supermarket.

Sprint, then Recover

At The Bolton Group, we coach executives, entrepreneurs and top teams of fast-paced, publicly traded and private-equity funded companies. Not surprisingly, our clients are smart, savvy people who are usually working all out.

We offer our clients perspective and coaching to help them be their best. And, this almost always involves becoming better at harnessing the one renewable resource at their disposal: their energy.

Statistics bear this out.  74% of Americans are experiencing a personal energy crisis.  And, for busy executives and entrepreneurs, effectively managing their energy and that of their teams poses perhaps the greatest risk to their success and that of their businesses.

We often talk of life as a marathon. And in many ways, it is.  But, to perform at our best – whether it’s actual physical activities or mental and emotional tasks required in our busy work lives – we have to ditch the notion that it’s about long slogs.

What should we dGrumpy kido? The way to optimize performance across all domains of life is to sprint and recover.  Practice these three rituals and you’ll go a long way to restoring your most important renewable resource:

  1. Identify your “power hour.” When are you at your best, most alert and creative?  Make this time (60-90 minutes) your time to work on the most critical task you have for the day.  Tune out distractions, set an alarm clock on your phone and go. Optimizing even this one block of time, will ensure you get something big accomplished every day.
  2. Do whatever it takes to improve your sleep.  There is no better form or recovery – for athletes or corporate athletes – than sleep.  Turn off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep; cut back or eliminate alcohol before going to bed; and establish a repeatable sleep ritual. There’s a huge body of evidence that Americans are sleep deprived with significant negative consequences. As an article this week on CNN.com notes: “Sleep deprivation causes us to eat more, it shrinks our brains, is linked to Type 2 diabetes, leads to slow reaction time that can impair driving and can even cause false memories.”
  3. Exercise religiously and quite literally sprint and recover. That is, start doing some form of higher intensity interval training (I wrote about this previously). It doesn’t have to be as hardcore as Crossfit. In fact, I also wrote previously about this approach that most of us should be able to do (or work our way into) that will greatly improve fitness.

New rituals take time to ingrain. Start these rituals now, keep them going for at least 60 days and you’ll make major strides in reclaiming energy in your work and for the rest of your life.

What It Takes

A good friend of ours, Sarah, is by her own admission out of shape. In her late 40s, she’s carrying too much weight, is experiencing problems in her joints and hasn’t (until very recently) done any serious exercise for over 20 years.

Recently, she’s started to say “no” to things in life that someone her age shouldn’t have to turn down. For example, she used to do annual family camping trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area – one of the nation’s few, great wilderness areas located here in our beautiful home state of Minnesota. But, the thought of long stretches portaging gear on rough terrain has put an end to that.bwcacanoe_10(1)

For years, she’s been pretty darn open about her level of fitness, so self-awareness hasn’t been the problem. Does she lack peer influences?  No. Her husband, my good friend Bill, has always been pretty fit in an untraditional sense. He’s a regular student of martial arts – a style designed to separate limbs from torsos – which keeps him in good shape! My wife and I are both devoted Crossfit cult members and we’d like to think we provide some role modeling.

So, what has stood in her way all these years? One word:  Fear. In particular, fear of what other people will think once she walks in the door of whatever fitness facility she enters.

But all that changed recently. She asked me to help her design some simple workouts and a plan of action that she could do, typically at a nearby “24 hour fitness” place. And, together, we agreed on a doable but significant goal: complete a 5k race in St. Paul this June.

For her and I’m sure most of us, the only thing that truly helps us get better at fitness (or anything in life) is the recognition that the cost of staying the same is greater than the cost of change. Until we acknowledge and admit it, the force of inertia takes over.

As an aside, I wrote a piece a couple of weeks back on wearable fitness technology – Fitbits and other fitness trackers – a market projected to grow to $50 billion by 2018. The gist was whether technology like this actually makes people get and stay fit. As it happens, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) just looked at this same question (albeit with a few more resources and science than I can enlist) and guess what? They don’t!

Here’s what they say.  “If wearable devices are to be part of the solution, they either need to create enduring new habits, turning external motivations into internal ones (which is difficult), or they need to sustain their external motivation (which is also difficult),”

In other words, they can aid in behavioral change. But they don’t create it. What Sarah needed wasn’t technology or some other quick fix. What she needed was some peer pressure (of the passive variety), peer support (the active kind), a sense of reward (getting back in shape enough to do what she loves to do) and a goal with a specific target (completing the 5k in June), which our families will do together. And, most of all, she needed to make a decision that the cost of not changing was higher than the cost of changing course.

I’m blown away by Sarah’s decision to commit to a new path for herself and her family. Her decision shows she really does have what it takes. Don’t let fear keep you from seeing the cost of not tackling whatever holds you back from getting better.

 

 

Fatter or Fitter?

One of our Bolton Group clients, the chief operating officer of a $600 million medical technology company, is a great example of a leader who models health and fitness in his company. In his mid-40s, overseeing rapid growth across three continents, he’s still a regular Crossfitter and runner who exhorts his leadership team and their reports to take the time they need, when they need it, to stay mentally and physically healthy. He represents an ethos that demanding work should never be an excuse to stop taking care of yourself.

This got me thinking as we recover from the 49th Superbowl and experience a short break before another national holiday based on over-eating. (If you think I’m getting preachy, let me just say that I consumed about four helpings of nachos and my share of bacon-wrapped tater tots at our Superbowl party.)

Homer

Occasional gluttony in the service of friends, family and fun is probably OK, but there’s something worrying about an end-of-year (2014) Gallup poll that found that obesity rates in America continue to rise. Nearly 28% of US adults are obese; another 35% are overweight. Not many of us fall in the “normal weight” category these days.

The ongoing obesity epidemic involves a complicated web of behavioral and socioeconomic factors. For example, access to healthy food; access to exercise facilities and the time and incentive to take advantage of them; diet; genetics; and the obesity-inducing model of how we work (driving to an office, sitting at a desk and grabbing fast food for lunch).

I get that.  But here’s where I think there’s huge, untapped potential.  Your cubicle. Well, actually, the sea of cubicles that makes up your place of work.  We spend the majority of our waking hours connected to our places of employment. They have huge capacity to alter the health equation.  Some companies are doing just that. If you need convincing, here’s the raw business case from the Harvard Business Review.

Of the six pillars of effective corporate wellness programs, the #1 cited — not surprisingly — is “C Suite” leadership. “If the CEO makes time for exercise, for instance, employees will feel less self-conscious about taking a fitness break.” Executive leaders, like our client, are critical to make this kind of change happen and stick.

But, it doesn’t end there. It takes middle managers, HR, wellness managers and anyone in a position to influence healthy workplace habits to make it happen. Business leaders at multiple levels in just about any company large and small need to lead the charge — modeling healthy behaviors and creating an environment where employees can move more and eat better during the workday.

If you lead or manage staff, are you leading by example, taking time out to create a healthy workplace? If not, what’s your company doing to make health and fitness a priority?

Life (and Fitness): It’s About Saying “Yes!”

Here’s Kate Klaers, owner of The Athlete Lab in the Twin Cities. Kate is the person who has most influenced my understanding of health and fitness and most inspired me (and many others) to tap whatever inner athlete we have inside us.  So, who better to kick off a guest blog than her.  In Part 1, Kate describes her motivation to start The Athlete Lab – the Crossfit gym I attend. 

It was 2008, and the beginning of the rise of “bootcamps” in the fitness industry. I already had a fitness instruction background from college, so I ended up being able to capitalize on the bootcamp craze by being in the right place at the right time.

I started with very low overhead by finding a gym that was going out of business (buying almost all of their equipment for virtually nothing), then headed outdoors to local parks with sold out classes.

The motivation to start The Athlete Lab at the time didn’t have depth yet.  It was as simple as, “I like fitness, I’ll start a bootcamp so people can have fun at the park and I can pay my bills!”

It has since turned into something much different, with deeper purpose and broader expectations of what our company’s responsibilities are.  Over time, the motivation for our company to exist has expanded to mean so much more.

We are in the business of providing the opportunity for each member to achieve physical and mental excellence.  After 6 years, I’ve come to realize that physical preparedness and confidence directly affects one’s mental capacities.  Equally important, it fosters a very high quality life.  One where you are capable of handling just about anything, in addition to, being able to say “yes” to everything that life has to offer.

Nobody wants to live a life where they have to say “no” to something simply because they are too out of shape or don’t have the confidence for it.

Our job is to break those physical and mental barriers, so the one hour spent in the gym a few times per week, translates much deeper into the remaining 95% of their actual life.  That’s pretty powerful, and until clients have that “break-through” moment, we have to continually provide the tools and opportunity for them to eventually see it for themselves.

If we can continue to provide this opportunity, then achievements in the gym, whether they are small or large, can be used as a catalyst for all facets of lifestyle improvement outside of the gym.

I am very passionate about this, particularly because the benefits of this kind of training has had a direct affect on my own life.  I wake up every day wanting the same for our members.

What’s Your “Marathon?”

I can’t help it.  I’m a sucker for documentaries about epic endurance adventures, knowing that I’ll never come close to one myself.

Over the past several months, my wife and I have watched Rising from Ashes, the incredible story of Rwandan cyclists – all survivors of the horrific genocide; Ride the Divide, about the great Banff to Mexico mountain bike race; Slaying the Badger, about the tortured relationship between Tour de France champions Greg LaMond and Bernard Hinault; and Desert Runners, about a group of nominally sane people who attempt to run all four 250 km (140 mile) ultra-marathons in the four great deserts of the world.

As my bio points out, I’ve never been an endurance athlete nor do I have any plans to start now. So, what’s with the mild obsession? Envy, awe, fascination with people doing things I can’t or won’t do?  Probably all true.

But, while watching the latest of these movies (Desert Runners), it hit me: I am running a marathon, but one that’s about time, instead of distance. My marathon is lifelong:  committing every day to keeping as well and able-bodied as possible until I’m 90 and then fall off my perch.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m competitive enough to feel the draw to actual road races. Which is why I’m setting my sights on a Crossfit competition in April, my first mini-triathlon this summer and running a half marathon. For me, having the occasional competition takes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to push a little harder.

I am inspired and impressed by endurance athletes.  But, let’s face it, they represent only the smallest fraction of humanity. The rest of us are running the life-a-thon. Find your “marathon,” whatever it is, as long as it inspires you to get up and move.

 

Muscle Soreness – Pretty Much All You Need to Know

I’m on the brink of overtraining again.  I know because I was sore before I even walked in the gym today. I’ll be miserable tomorrow. Maybe I’m over the brink.

So, it was timely that I encountered this piece today via Twitter.  Like everything in life, to be optimally productive, we have to sprint and recover.  The recovery part is where I usually blow it.

I’m posting this for everyone’s benefit, including my own.

Why Your Muscles Get Sore and What You Can Do About It.

 

Are You More Fit with a Fitbit?

I had breakfast the other day with a friend of mine and brilliant communications consultant Andy Skoogman– a guy in his 40s who works hard to keep himself in good shape.

Like lots of folks these days, he was sporting a Garmin (sorry, Fitbit) on his wrist. I’m a bit of a cheapskate Luddite, so adding another piece of technology to my life doesn’t appeal to me.

Nevertheless, wearable fitness tech is now more than a $1 billion industry.

Wearable FitnessEven though I don’t use one,  I’m all for any tool that helps keep wellness central to our lives. So, the rise of wearable fitness tech has piqued my interest.

The question I have is simple: does wearable fitness technology actually improve fitness? A recent article in the Berkeley Science Review looks at this question and points to some interesting early studies. But, Google some more and you end up with more questions than answers. Afterall, it’s new technology.

Does step counting really make you take the stairs instead of the elevator or park farther from your building? Does data sharing gamify and competify the experience enough to move more? Is it sustainable when the tech novelty is gone?

On my primary behavioral question, one thing jumped out from the Berkeley piece: maybe it really all comes down to our motivation set-point and ability to set specific and reasonable goals? (See my earlier post  on rituals). In other words, does a Fitbit (or Garmin) just motivate the motivated?  For Andy, that seems to be the answer. “I have always been really active so I wouldn’t say it has inspired me to be MORE active.”

Andy’s reaction fits my bias:  Fitbit or not, any fitness plan (or for that matter life or professional objective) has to involve setting challenging goals with a decent chance of reaching them and carving out specific days and times when you’ll work towards them. Otherwise, we’ll just get to them whenever. Meaning: Never. That said, maybe having this thing vibrating on your wrist when you reach 10,000 steps is enough to at least keep fitness front and center – literally.

Do you use Fitbit, Nike+ Fuel, Jawbone, Garmin or other wearable fitness tech? Has it made you more active or ended up in your sock drawer?  I’d love to hear what you think!

Paleo-ish

Recently, I decided to extend a life insurance policy to increase term coverage. Over the past number of years, my cancer history and high cholesterol made this an expensive proposition and one that usually left me a little deflated, knowing that I’m consistently “rated” (i.e., made to pay more because of it).caveman

So, I was a little shocked to learn that I received the best possible rating for someone my age (I seriously felt like throwing a party to celebrate my blood work!)

Exercise is part of that equation.  But, I’m convinced that broader lifestyle changes (better diet, better sleep and better stress management) have contributed significantly.

And a big factor has been the “paleo-ish” diet I’ve been on.

Even if you’re not part of the Crossfit cult, no doubt you’ve heard talk of the “paleo” diet — a diet based on the foods human beings ate before the discovery of beer.  Think meat, nuts, fruit and delicious paleo brownies.

Ok, so let’s get something out of the way:  No one eating a paleo diet is eating anything close to what our paleolithic ancestors chewed on.  Afterall, when was the last time any of our weekly shopping trips consisted of foraging for edible plants and living on the bison we killed with handmade stone weaponry?

For the record, strict paleo eliminates dairy, legumes, all processed foods, refined sugars, grains and vegetable oils.  So, it’s not surprising that it ranked last by US News for dietary adherence! But, there’s mounting evidence that some critical aspects of the paleo diet make a great deal of sense, from both an evolutionary and metabolic standpoint.

Here’s my simple prescription for a “paleo-ish” diet that I believe captures many of the health benefits without having an overwhelming number of decision points:

  • Just say no to dessert (and pretty much all refined sugar).  In distant times, sugar was in small supply, likely leaving us with a tremendous genetic craving for it. Nowadays, we’re swimming in sugar.  For me, small sugar cravings are fine (a little dark chocolate or raw sugar in my coffee), but I’m guessing my refined sugar intake is down 80% from where it was a few years ago.
  • Cut out wheat and most of grains.  Notwithstanding the controversies around “gluten sensitivities,” I simply feel much better and more energetic by cutting out wheat and grains.  See here for a few reasons why.
  • Steer clear of processed foods whenever possible.  Stuff with more than 2 or 3 ingredients that comes in a box generally equates to highly processed, laced with additives, and devoid of much nutritional value.

In short, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  I encourage you to sort out all of this for yourself, but a little knowledge and a lot of common sense goes a very long way.

And, if you’re interested in exploring some paleo recipes, these are two awesome sites.

Nom Nom Paleo & Civilized Caveman

 

 

Road Warrior Workouts

roadA common thread for many of our clients at The Bolton Group is the tremendous challenge faced by busy executives in finding the time and motivation to exercise on a regular basis — especially on the road.

If you’re a road warrior, you’ll know that there’s not much time between business trips – meaning that your workout routines are often interrupted; you’ve got to reinvent on the fly how to get in some physical activity in foreign cities and hotels; and you’ve got to do it with disrupted sleep.

There is a simple answer:  Use the hotel gym!  But, if slogging on a treadmill isn’t your thing, pack in your suitcase a couple of resistance bands and a plan for short, higher intensity travel workouts on the road.

You can get a complete, whole body, functionally relevant workout with almost no equipment or space required.

Where to start?  I feel like I’m on a one-man mission to promote this guy – Dave “The Band Man” Schmitz.  Check out this video — one of many — using inexpensive resistance band he sells on his website. (Ok, it’s a little campy, but this dude knows his stuff).  I use bands whenever I can to augment my training, when I’m traveling or just to unplug from the gym.

Using bands and/or some very simple, higher intensity body weight exercises will help you metabolically and mentally deal with the rigors of travel.

Don’t Focus on Habits. Create New Rituals.

Last week, I tuned into an interesting webinar by Tony Schwartz, founder and CEO of the Energy Project.  Schwartz has become the pied piper of more effectively harnessing, managing, replenishing the four sources of human energy – physical (quantity), emotional (quality), spiritual (purpose), mental (focus).

What really got my attention, though, was how he characterized the subtle but powerful difference between habit and ritualsToo-many-choices-question-marks.  In essence, rituals are small deliberate acts that become so familiar that they move from the conscious frontal cortex to the more primitive, subconscious amygdala (think of brushing your teeth as a ritual that takes little thought).

So, when we want to make lasting change – starting a new exercise regimen, for example — we need to build a new ritual that becomes so ingrained that it takes our higher-level, debate-oriented, self-doubting brain out of the equation as much as possible.

Why? Because too many choices wear us down. Less is definitely more. I’m not sure where he came up with this number, but Schwartz noted that following a strict diet is estimated to involve something like 220 discrete decisions (yes, no, maybe) on food choices in a single day!  Talk about an exhausting workout for the frontal cortex!

In short, we need to create change slowly and deliberately through simple, new rituals that, once ingrained, we can largely forget about.  We’ll do them because we always do them (like brushing our teeth).

So, how to do we get there from here?  His prescription is simple (as you’d expect): Set definite days/times to do X (I will exercise on M, W, F at 7:00 a.m). And, enlist someone who will hold you accountable and to whom you will report on your progress no less than weekly.

 

To HIIT or not to HIIT – That is the Question

hiit-high-intensity-interval-training-work-out-coverHigh intensity interval training (HITT for short) is the rage.  Here’s a decent example.  Whether in its somewhat extreme version (Crossfit) or its more accessible version advanced by Mark Sisson (Mark’s Daily Apple; the Primal Blueprint), there are a number of reasons for its success and attraction.

Here are a few:

1.  When done properly, it relies primarily on compound (multi-joint) functional movements – that is, the stuff our bodies were designed to do.  Run, jump, throw, push ourselves off the ground, pull ourselves up over rocks or into trees.

2. Because of #1, it’s also far safer than many people think (again, if done properly).  It’s usually low impact and designed to enlist many muscle groups, connecting tissues and your brain.

3. For those of us who can’t or won’t log the hours for endurance training (which isn’t the right approach for most of us anyway), HIIT is simply downright efficient.  With little or no equipment, you can get amazing results in 20 minutes or even less.  The ‘high intensity” part of the definition means you push to your cardio/metabolic limits quickly within a short amount of time — greatly accelerating the health benefits. If long distance running is a low, dull pain, think of HIIT as a sharp shooting tooth ache:  it hurts like crazy, but once you get the procedure done, it feels soooo good.

The question then isn’t whether HIIT is beneficial, it’s really how do average everyday folks who may just be considering a new exercise approach start?  And what’s enough? What’s too much?

If you are new to HIIT, thought about HIIT or just want to take a step from a more sedentary lifestyle to a do-able (and therefore sustainable) approach to fitness, here’s what I recommend:*

Check out Mark Sisson’s website, subscribe and download his Primal Blueprint Fitness ebook.  It’s free and an amazing source of guidance that combines a small amount of HIIT with slow “primal” activities.

And then put his 7 day primal workout into practice.  It’s simple, natural and will yield huge health benefits.

* Check with your doctor first before you start an exercise program, especially if you’re just getting going!

** I have no vested relationship or connection to Sisson’s work. I just like it and think you will too.  

 

 

Sleep. Because Coffee Can’t Do Everything.

My wife, Rebecca, is a high school teacher who can’t get away for an extra cup of good coffee in the morning. So, the other day, I made one of my occasional stops at a coffee shop to pick up some high-quality caffeine for her, where I ran into a friend from a local Crossfit gym.A-Day-Without-Coffee

Phil, who’s a captain for a local fire department, is built like a house. At 49, he can out-lift me by a factor of 2 or 3 on any Olympic lift.  But, as a former college football player who suffers from some nagging back injuries and now, with a long career as a firefighter, he lives with his share of chronic pain.

As a result, he told me this morning, he’s not sleeping very well.  And, even with a “clean diet,” he said he’s having a hard time keeping the weight off despite consistent hard exercise at a local Crossfit gym.

His theory?  Bad sleep leads to an overproduction of the hormone cortisol which inhibits the body’s metabolism. He didn’t quite say it that way, but that pretty much sums it.  I listened and tried my best to put a positive spin on things but then went on my way to deliver a much-anticipated cold press coffee to my wife.

Later in the day, I was curious to see if there’s anything to Phil’s cortisol theory. It took me about 3 seconds on Google to find an abstract on Medscape supporting what he said.

One finding from this abstract is that “elevations of evening cortisol levels in chronic sleep loss are likely to promote the development of insulin resistance, a risk factor for obesity and diabetes.” Sounds a lot like Phil’s problem.

Another finding is that sleep loss affects our appetite in the wrong direction. The authors note: “Sleep loss is associated with an increase in appetite that is excessive in relation to the caloric demands of extended wakefulness.”

So, poor sleep not only messes up our metabolism it compounds that problem by making us want to eat more! A double-whammy if there ever was one.

There’s a lot of talk these days about our sleep-deprived society and what it’s doing to our creativity and sense of well-being. As anyone who has experienced bouts of insomnia can attest, the craving for a good night’s sleep is one of our most powerful biological needs.

I really feel for Phil and what he’s going through. Sadly, he’s got plenty of company. The same abstract notes that sleep duration “appears to have decreased by 1.5-2 hours during the second half of the 20th century. Today, many people are in bed only 5-6 hours per night on a regular basis.”

Tens of thousands of years of evolution don’t much care about our 24/7, always-on world.  Sleep is a biological imperative, not a luxury good. Too little of it not only affects how we think and feel, it also puts in jeopardy the rest of our physical well-being.

If you suffer from poor and/or too little sleep, see a doctor or other health care provider who specializes in sleep and get a strategy together to deal with it. It might be as simple as some small changes in your diet and routine before you head off for some shut eye.

Don’t put it off.