Entrepreneurship presents many challenges. It means long days, stressful situations, and sleepless nights. It means picking up new skills on the fly, processing huge amounts of information, and taking calculated risks. And it means interacting with people every day and still finding time to shut out the world and do focused deep work.
If there’s one thing entrepreneurs shouldn’t neglect, it’s exercise. Exercise helps us handle all these challenges and perform at our best. Read on to find out how exercise can help you.
A big part of life as a business owner is the ability to process and integrate information quickly, whether you’re looking over transaction statements or developing a new skill.
Optimizing the health of our hippocampus, a brain region responsible for memory and learning, makes this easier. Studies have found that steady-state aerobic exercise fuels the growth of new neurons and the protection of existing ones in this region.
You can use any aerobic exercise that can be continued for longer stretches of time: running, cycling, brisk walking, and swimming are a few examples. Work up to a pace you can sustain for longer periods of time and aim for a session at least 20 minutes long. With practice, you should be able to work up to 45 – 60 minute sessions and enjoy stronger benefits.
This same effect will help you defend against cognitive decline in your later years. Exercise the hippocampus and develop the memory of a hippopotamus, which is supposedly quite good!
If you really want to develop some mental agility, try high-intensity interval training. HIIT has been found to most effectively increase levels of BDNF in many areas of the brain.
BDNF is a neurotrophin that plays a big part in neuroplasticity, allowing us to handle unknown situations, think up creative solutions and adapt on our feet. Thanks to its activity in the cortex, it also benefits executive function—our ability to choose our tasks more wisely, pay attention to the right things at the right time and maintain self-control.
HIIT is, as the name suggests, intense. Work up to it, because if you are unfit now and dive straight in, you probably won’t feel better—you’ll feel run-down, and very little good thinking comes of that. But once you’re ready, adding a few HIIT intervals to longer steady-state cardio sessions will enhance the overall effect without requiring more of your time.
High-quality sleep might be something many entrepreneurs forego, but it’s important to both ongoing good health and your success in business. Among other things, sleep significantly impacts impulse control, rational decision-making, and mood.
Exercise improves sleep quality via so many mechanisms that we can’t list them all here, but the earlier in the day you exercise, the better you’ll sleep. In one study, participants performed aerobic exercise at 7 am 1 pm and 7 pm. Exercise at 7 am led to the highest quality sleep while exercising at 7 pm reduced time in Rapid Eye Movement sleep.
It has also been shown that exercise mediates the circadian rhythm. By exercising earlier, you strengthen your body’s natural day-night sleep cycle. If you tend to work into the evening and lie in bed struggling to get to sleep, working out early will help you get there faster.
Finally, try to take your morning exercise outdoors—the sunlight will help you wake up faster and start melatonin (the sleep signaling hormone) production earlier in the night.
As much as we like to think business is a meritocracy where good ideas will always rise to the top, it’s an established fact that we respond more receptively to men and women who carry themselves with confidence.
Lifting weights with correct form re-aligns our bodies so that we more naturally display this confidence in our posture, and increases muscularity, which sends similar signals.
This will take time, but it doesn’t hurt to fake it until you make it.
If you need to deliver compelling presentations or get better outcomes in tough negotiations, it’s wise to add some strength training to your regime. Make sure you get coaching, at least initially, to learn how to perform the movements correctly and avoid injury.
Every entrepreneur knows that there can be dark moments along the road. There’s despair when things look hopeless, and daily anxiety about making payroll, looming expenses and finishing projects on time.
To navigate all of this successfully, it’s essential to keep those feelings from overwhelming you and keep them in their useful place, as signallers to action. Exercise is again remarkably effective here.
Exercise has conclusively been shown to reduce anxiety via biological and psychological mechanisms, as well as to have a protective effect against stressors yet to come. Exercise, like meditation, has effects just as strong as antidepressant treatment. Almost any kind of exercise will do: cardio, weight training, team sports—the list goes on. But if you really need to target stormy feelings as a priority, consider a stretching program, or something more advanced like yoga.
To tackle anxieties from both directions, add a meditation practice to your day. It goes down especially well right after your workout, and you can use an app like Headspace or Oak to get you started really easily.
In one study, it was found that workers can reduce their anxiety and delay burnout with regular stretching. Similarly, yoga reduces levels of cortisol, well-known as the stress hormone, which allows us to handle stressful situations more mindfully and ward off feelings of anxiety. It also boosts other processes that clean up after the wreckage of oxidative stress, known to affect both the body and the mind.
Just don’t relax so much that you forget payroll altogether. You won’t be relaxed when the horde pounds down your door.
Entrepreneurs are more likely than anyone to spend long hours sitting at their desks, which leads to back and hip pain, and assorted other maladies. This kind of program will also help you offset the negative effects of sitting—but it’s still wise to get that standing desk.
The benefits don’t stop once you’ve controlled stress and anxiety. You’ve established a good baseline. From here you can optimize your state of mind, attaining a better mood, mindset, and outlook, which naturally increases your productivity and improves your ability to deal with other people.
We know that exercise improves self-esteem. You’ll feel more grounded, socially integrated, and generally happy (PDF). And exercise provides an easy win within your control for the day. Having gotten your workout off the way, you’ve checked off a goal, gained a feeling of accomplishment and can move into the rest of your day with momentum. Perhaps this is why exercise is a habit of high-achievers.
Thanks to the great legal mind Elle Woods, we all know that exercise causes the brain to unleash a torrent of endorphins, endogenous opioid hormones that bring on a sense of euphoria. You can use any intense exercise to get there, from weight training to running. The release of endorphins is a response to extreme exertion, so if you’re not feeling it yet, the solution is to increase your workout’s intensity until you do.
Weight training is a great way to improve your hormonal profile, which has a massive impact on overall health. For our purposes, it increases feelings of well-being, gives us the resilience to stress, and makes us more decisive and motivated.
For both men and women, resistance training increases testosterone and growth hormone and reduces levels of cortisol at rest (ladies, you won’t grow a beard—exercise optimizes hormones within the norms for you).
While it’s often unfairly painted, testosterone helps us improve cognition, feel more at ease with ourselves, cooperate with our teams and make hard business decisions. It also motivates us to strive for big goals.
Growth hormone improves recovery time (from exercise, as well as wounds and bone fractures), improves sleep quality and can even mitigate some of the damage of the sleep deprivation entrepreneurs subject themselves to.
We’ve covered the effects of lower cortisol, and in today’s world, we should take that wherever we can get it.
Completely new to strength training? Nerd Fitness has a great introduction.
Today, one of the most common conditions that handicap cognition and energy is diabetes, and its precursor, metabolic syndrome, which affects an estimated 34% of Americans. We’re also seeing increasing occurrences of neurodegenerative conditions and cancer.
This isn’t particularly optimistic talk, but the good news is that across all of these conditions, exercise is a potent preventative. The advantage is staggering: weight loss achieved through exercise reduces the risk of diabetes by 58%, almost twice as much as preventative metformin.
Grab your flippers. Any consistently implemented exercise plan will provide these benefits, including swimming. If you’re already at risk, swimming is a particularly good choice, as the buoyancy of water means there’s less stress on the heart, and the lack of impact means that strained joints can exert themselves with less risk.
One study found that swimming—while improving general cognitive function—reduces the accumulation of oxidatively damaged proteins, which are implicated as a factor in everything from Alzheimer’s to cancer.
There’s nothing more invigorating than jumping into a cold pool in the morning, or more refreshing than swimming at the beach on a summer day. Health benefits aside, swimming is a great way to prepare you for a hard day’s hustle as a business owner.
Entrepreneurs depend on consistent energy and the stamina to get through long stretches of work. It’s likely no surprise to you that exercise provides both.
One study found that sedentary workers who complain about fatigue can reduce it by a whopping 65%, and increase energy levels by 20%, just by engaging in regular exercise. The kicker: it doesn’t even have to be a slog—low-intensity exercise will do the trick.
Exercise improves heart health, which improves endurance and stamina. Your body will be able to take more of what you throw at it, and better blood flow to the brain will do the same for it. It certainly works for Batman.
Many of the other benefits we’ve discussed cascade down into higher energy, from the hormone profile provided by weightlifting, to the better sleep that comes with early exercise.
Exercise clearly has a multitude of positive effects on the body and the mind, but it can do a lot for the soul, too. Team sports and other cooperative exercise activities provide you with a venue in which to meet people you wouldn’t have been introduced to through your business.
It’s a great way to make friends who can support you, and be supported in turn, through the difficulties of business and life. From time to time, you’ll even make connections who can help you in business—though you may also end up with some bumps and bruises that look out of place in a suit. It’s a great way to enhance your teamwork skills, and learn to depend on others.
People who play team sports report greater life satisfaction and mental health. If soccer isn’t for you, you can still gain a lot from a gym partner.
These benefits generally take time to develop. Create a plan that is achievable for you, and gradually increase your level of exertion as you adapt. Most importantly, be consistent. If life happens, don’t beat yourself up about it and throw away your momentum—get back to it as soon as you’re able.
Alongside consistency, you need proper sleep and good nutrition to reap the benefits, but those are things you should embrace as essential to your entrepreneurial success, too.
There are many ways to combine specific exercises into a program that targets the areas you need the most help with:
But the most effective exercise is the one that you will do. If you struggle to get in the swing of things, don’t worry about specific exercises for specific benefits: focus on making a habit of the activity you enjoy most right now.