BECOME A BIONIC BOSS

BECOME A BIONIC BOSS - Are you fit to run your team? There are more ways to propel your career than collecting management qualifications. Only by toning your body and honing your mind you can you achieve full effectiveness and alertness at work, says Vict

by VICTORIA HOBAN
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Are you fit to run your team? There are more ways to propel your career than collecting management qualifications. Only by toning your body and honing your mind you can you achieve full effectiveness and alertness at work, says Victoria Hoban

If you're old (and sad) enough to remember what is meant by a 'Bionic Man', the chances are you don't quite fit the description these days. The over-35s will remember chisel-jawed pilot Steve Austin, 'The Six Million Dollar Man', who was rebuilt by scientists after suffering debilitating injuries, having momentarily taken his eye off the artificial horizon.

His newly created bionic powers included superhuman strength, cheetah-like speed over the ground and even an ability to see through walls. Just think how handy that trio of skills might prove in the office.

But most of us poor mortals struggle simply to stay human at work, never mind achieve superhuman fitness. Business culture hasn't helped - until fairly recently, the relationship between work and fitness went no further than networking by the 18th hole. Occupational health was a middle-aged nurse sitting in the basement with a set of dusty scales, waiting to hand out the Elastoplast and iodine to traumatised paper-cut victims.

Such attitudes were reflected by even the most progressive thinkers - when management guru extraordinaire Tom Peters went In Search of Excellence in the 1980s, he didn't find it in the gym. 'It's just another case of American businessmen focusing on the wrong thing,' he said of the suggestion that a person's fitness could affect their performance at work.

Things have changed. Detailed health questionnaires often form part of the staff selection process, corporate gym membership, private medical insurance and even personal coaches are included in the executive package.

Even the reluctant Peters has changed his tune. After being called a 'walking heart attack' by a concerned audience member at one of his sessions, he now power walks and urges executives to consider their health and fitness.

More and more companies are wising up to the idea that the health of their employees is not just a personal issue but a business one. A fit employee is a productive employee. And think how handy it would be for the HR department to have the full genome of genetic data when vetting new employees.

But your wellbeing isn't entirely dependent on the genes you inherit from your parents - you can do something about the health of your whole physical and mental self. And you'll have to in the years to come if you want to compete on the top rungs of the corporate ladder. This holistic view is a return to where we all started. The division of mind and body is a modern belief. Ancient cultures embraced the principle mens sana in corpore sano - a healthy mind in a healthy body.

One business that has become more holistic in recent years is professional sport. Besides physical prowess, an athlete's psychological and social wellbeing can provide that vital competitive edge. One man who thinks this applies just as well to top corporate performers is Clive Pinder, MD of 'wellbeing management' company Vielife Consulting - a London firm whose founder's early speciality was to hone the fitness of racing drivers.

'Like the Formula One driver, the CEO is the core of his team: Schumacher has a bad day? - Ferrari has a bad day; Niall Fitzgerald has a bad day? - Unilever has a bad day. Likewise, Fitzgerald's awareness of his own health trickles down through his organisation.'

Vielife's goal is to keep those bad days to a minimum. The company's deluxe One-on-One service offers senior executives year-round health monitoring from specialists, including a doctor, an osteopath, a sleep specialist and a nutritionist. A personal lifestyle strategist then formulates a health plan for you, including weekly support and regular follow-ups to make sure you aren't slacking. They can even tailor your plan so that peak performance levels coincide with that vital pitch meeting or big City presentation. And there's a stripped-down online version for employees who haven't yet reached the upper rungs.

Vielife, which operates in the UK from bright, ergonomically friendly offices in London Bridge, has just secured an online contract with Europe's largest employer. Ironically, it will be offering health and lifestyle advice to those who should know better - the employees of the NHS. Clearly, 'Physician, heal thyself' is as apposite today as it ever was.

Becoming a bionic boss isn't only about losing weight and getting fit, although with 40% of us dying from heart disease - Britain's biggest killer - and 50% of the population officially obese, it's an important consideration.

Physical activity also helps our mental state, by increasing bloodflow to the brain, heightening alertness, boosting energy levels and promoting the release of endorphins, our 'feelgood' hormone. It is also vital for good posture, strengthening and stretching key muscles. Paul Gold, a corporate fitness and lifestyle consultant whose clients include Olswang lawyers, says: 'All the principles that make a great athlete can be applied to any area you wish to excel in, including business.'

Talking of posture, how's your back? Probably not too great - back pain is Britain's leading cause of disability and accounts for 13 million lost working days a year (at a cost of pounds 5 billion), and it is on the rise.

Although occurring most commonly in middle age, it affects an increasing number of younger people as our lives - at work and at play - become more sedentary. Good posture is the starting point for minimising back trouble, and regular breaks and stretching can help prevent long-term problems.

To help your back, you need to get a proper orthopaedic office chair.

They're not cheap, and the correct way to sit - with your weight thrown forward and your feet on the ground - feels odd, but changing both chair and posture are beneficial.

And while shaping up your bionic body from the outside, be careful not to neglect what goes into it. Diet and alcohol intake have a crucial bearing on our health. As we sweat our way up the greasy career pole, long hours, stress and corporate entertaining make a healthy diet as difficult to achieve as a bionic leap over a skyscraper. But good diet not only heightens alertness, it decreases the risk of irritable bowel syndrome and peptic ulcers - classic conditions of fast living.

If eating properly seems like a tall order, moderating alcohol consumption can be tantamount to career suicide. Brit culture is so steeped in booze that to refuse a drink can be like slapping your host in the face. But alcohol impairs judgment, decreases efficiency and raises one's vulnerability to accidents, besides being a major factor in digestive disorders and liver disease (deaths from which are on the up, especially in the 25 to 44 age bracket). It's not a trivial problem - the morning after the night before accounts for between eight and 14 million lost working days a year.

Alcohol also disrupts sleep, and a decent night's rest can make the difference between bionic and catatonic. But long working hours, small, wakeful kids at home and jet lag from business travel can make it difficult to get even 40 winks. 'The problem with our health is not just physical or mental,' says Vielife's founder, Dr Francois Duforez, 'it's brain-cell fatigue, due to a lack of oxygen and glucose, relating to exercise and diet. And neurotransmitters and serotonin levels are also affected by sleep.' The part played by a good eight hours' kip is often overlooked by regular health checks, but is a key element of Vielife's programme.

Stress has been called the plague of modern living. More than half of all workers claim to suffer from it, and compensation payouts have been on the up. The relationship between stress and our state of health is complex. It has been shown to lower immunity and make us more likely to indulge in drink, nicotine and drug abuse. But stress also stimulates the adrenal glands, triggering our inbuilt fight-or-flight response, vital to our survival and our ability to react to our environment, be that a herd of elephants or a hostile takeover bid. Bionic bosses should channel stress positively and keep things in perspective. 'It's not about who's doing the most,' claims Octavius Black, MD of The Mind Gym, which offers integrated personal development sessions, 'it's about enjoying your job and feeling a sense of control.'

Even if you haven't felt the bloom of youth upon your cheeks for a few years, it's never too late to start shaping up mind and body. One study showed that six months of moderate fitness training can return a 50-year-old to the level of fitness he enjoyed at 20. And there are plenty of role models to get you going. Niall Fitzgerald of Unilever competes in marathons and has enlisted one of his employees as a running partner.

Digby Jones of the CBI is focusing by training for a four-day hike across the Alps. And Rupert Murdoch has a personal trainer to put him through his paces each morning. All are mature converts to the bionic lifestyle - Fitzgerald was a smoker, Jones has battled with the bulge and Murdoch had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

So what price a bionic makeover? You can do it yourself for nothing (see our tips box above). You can enlist a personal trainer for pounds 30 a session, a corporate fitness and lifestyle consultant such as Paul Gold for about pounds 550 a day. But if you're going for a one-on-one executive package such as the one Vielife offers - with a team of health specialists at your command and an online version for all your employees - you're talking pounds 12,000 a year. Which, compared to Steve Austin's bill for dollars 6 million, seems a bargain.

BRAIN

Treat your brain like your PC - don't overload the hard drive, and switch off occasionally. Without enough sleep and food, oxygen and glucose levels drop; memory and judgment fail, reactions slow, inducing burn-out - the executive equivalent of all systems crashing.

BACK

An aligned spine and strong supporting muscles maximise the efficiency of body systems and vital organs. Exercise and good posture, especially when sitting at your desk or asleep, are crucial.

LIVER

Your liver clears junk and absorbs the good. A constant flow of irritants - alcohol, fat and medication - causes toxic build-up and eventually inflammation and permanent damage.

ADRENAL GLANDS

Adrenaline is released when we're challenged, quickening the pulse and increasing alertness. Triggered by anxiety, it induces insomnia, headaches, high blood pressure, even heart disease.

HEART

The heart is a muscle, and without exercise it sags like any other. Exercise is press-ups for the heart, causing it to pump blood faster, replacing depleted oxygen levels more efficiently.

SPLEEN

Your immune system is your insurance policy. Pay the premiums and it will look after you in times of need.

BE BIONIC ON A BUDGET

1 EXERCISE THREE TIMES A WEEK. Running, cycling or even walking to work is time-efficient, cost-efficient and reduces the stresses of rush hour.

2 DRINK AT LEAST EIGHT GLASSES OF WATER A DAY. Moderate your alcohol intake, avoid binge-drinking and aim to have regular alcohol-free days - at least two per week.

3 REST EYES FROM VDU SCREENS FOR 10 MINUTES EVERY HOUR. Get up, walk about, take deep breaths. Get fresh air during breaks - a brisk walk revives soggy brain cells.

4 BE HAPPY. Exercise, laughter and feelings of elation release endorphins, which activate the immune system, delay ageing, relieve pain, improve memory and even unblock blood vessels.

5 STOP SMOKING. A 20-a-day habit costs pounds 1,600 a year, accelerates ageing, lowers immunity, leads to chronic health problems from middle age and even to premature death.

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