Alex Davda: Gruelling exercise regimes can help you get ahead

Alex Davda advises aspiring leaders on the benefits of working out.

Powered by automated translation

I often notice that leaders – those at the top of their field – are also extremely fit. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is always jogging past famous landmarks around the world with his team. I am not a particular fan of exercise, but I am very ambitious. Should I hit the gym to help me get ahead? KJ, Abu Dhabi

Looking to successful leaders at the top of their game for inspiration and insight is certainly not a bad way to go, both in terms of their work routines and their lifestyle. But we then need to take a few snippets of their routines and apply it to our own lives, rather than trying (and often failing) to become carbon copies. Disappointingly, we can’t all be the successful CEOs who compete in Ironman competitions in their spare time. Remember, their worlds are very different to our own and setting realistic, achievable goals is key.

When we think about the value of exercise, we typically focus on the physical benefits: lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, improved strength and endurance and a more appealing physique. This also has a positive knock-on effect on the quality of our sleep and on our diet. The physical benefits are certainly one reason why we should be exercising regularly as part of our day-to-day lives. However, there is also robust evi­dence that exercise has a positive impact on our cognitive functioning. To put it simply; it improves the way we think.

Research indicates that our mental firepower is directly linked to a physical regime and that is why leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and the chief executive of Nike, Mark Palmer, put themselves through gruelling exercise routines. Research identifies the outcomes of regular exercise as improved concentration, sharper memory, faster learning, enhanced creativity and greater resilience with lower stress.

If you take stress and resilience, for example, the drive to perform during sporting activities and go the extra mile is clearly paralleled in the drive and ambition to succeed at work. Equally, exercise lowers stress levels, relaxes us and makes us feel good about ourselves. Physical activity sparks dopamine production (happy hormones), rebuilds toxic damage to the brain and enhances self-esteem. When we feel physically good, it enhances our confidence, and that no doubt improves our presence, impact and general manner at work. After all that, I hope all our other readers are convinced that exercise is a good way to go.

However, now we have established that, think about yourself and avoid comparing yourself to others: “Ambitious but not a fan of exercise, thinking of hitting the gym to enhance chances of success”. I would urge you to try and find an exercise routine that fits your lifestyle. It has been said that Michelle Obama was getting to the gym at 4:30am or 5am every day before her US president husband. That time or intensity may not work for you (it certainly doesn’t for me), and you may feel that exercising two or three times after work and at weekends is more than enough.

Equally, if you are ambitious and driven, then you may benefit from other forms of exercise such as a more competitive sport or an intense class surrounded by energetic colleagues. The gyms of the UAE are packed with the full range of high-intensity exercise classes. What I am trying to say is finding a routine that works for you is more important than emulating leaders in the public eye or those around you. Otherwise you may feel disappointed if you cannot keep it up.

Personally, I love to exercise but I also enjoy other aspects in my life, such as reading and socialising. I am extremely satisfied if I exercise three times a week, and part of that is playing a regular football game on a Saturday with friends. I choose activities like running or football that I enjoy, rather than ones that I think would have the most benefit on my brain or body. I also enjoy reading and make sure I make time for that. Research has also found links between reading and cognitive functioning; for example in 2015 Mark Zuckerberg set the challenge of reading a book every other week. I did not even attempt to emulate that and am happy if I can read a book a month. Remember, it has to work for you and meet your needs and situation.

Doctor’s prescription

Staying fit and healthy is fundamental for any ambitious leader or manager in organisations and the benefits are well documented, both physical and psychological. However, integrating this routine into your daily life in a way that works for you is the only way to make it sustainable. Otherwise you will feel like you’re forced to run a marathon when you only wanted to go out for a light jog.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues