Are you looking to get ahead in your career – looking for your next job or have set your eyes on a promotion? Well, forget about turning up immaculately dressed, with your fancy designer handbag/briefcase. Instead, make sure you arrive carrying a big gym bag on your shoulders and a water bottle in your hand, preferably still wearing a glow on your cheeks from a pre-breakfast workout session.

Well, apparently this is the new way to ‘dress for success’, according to a recent German study published in the Social Science Research Network, which examined the relationship between employees’ fitness and their effectiveness at work. (To be clear, the study itself looked at CEO’s, however having read their findings, I believe that these can be easily related to employees in less senior positions as well, whose challenges are similar in nature in terms of having a heavy workload and a wide range of responsibilities.)

The aforementioned study found a clear correlation, namely that these (senior) employees who participated in endurance sports, especially marathons, added or increased value to the company. The report acknowledges that there is a clear relationship between physical and mental endurance, and countless other studies have also shown as well that people who work out on a regular basis experience health and wellbeing benefits that directly impact on their performance and ability to cope with challenging tasks at work.

John J Ratey is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an internationally recognized expert in Neuropsychiatry. He is also author of the book Spark! in which his central thesis is that “Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function (…) To keep our brains at peak performance, our bodies need to work hard.”

On the back of these findings, the researchers of the German study believe that there is a clear rationale for using physical fitness as a hiring requirement for employees, especially for roles with lots of responsibility. In her January 2013 article for The Wall Street Journal, Leslie Kwoh says that “Being fit matters (…) While marathon training and predawn workouts aren’t explicitly part of a (…) job description, leadership experts and executive recruiters say that staying trim is now virtually required for anyone on track for the corner office.” (Or looking to progress, in other words, in case you are not aspiring to become a CEO!)

The ‘corporate’ athlete

As Human Resources professional, I have done lots of recruitment myself throughout my career – I hired countless people into various different vacancies, including internal promotion roles. So this is how I see this: when I see on someone’s CV that they love regularly testing themselves in endurance events and embarking on other physical challenges, it definitely catches my eyes and earns them an instant brownie-point. Now, at this point you might say that because I am a keen long distance runner myself, I am just being unconsciously biased because people tend to employ others in their own image, i.e. people who show similar interests as they do. I put my hand on my heart because the primary reason something like this always attracts my attention is because extremely fit people seem to possess exactly the kind of attributes every company is looking for, in almost any progressive role, namely:

  • Being goal-focussed
  • Dedication and commitment
  • Motivation
  • Tenacity and hard work
  • Perseverance and ‘can do’ attitude
  • Resilience
  • Not being afraid to go beyond your comfort zone and push yourself.

If I am looking for extra-curricular evidence that an individual is keen to progress, add value and succeed, endurance activities such as long distance runs, triathlons, obstacle races (such as Tough Mudder, Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest etc.) certainly offer a more positive and more convincing evidence than for example pottering in the garden at the weekends.

This is me running into the finish line of the Valencia Marathon in 2014. Out of my 3 marathons this has been the toughest one both mentally and physically – but it taught me a lot about resilience and refusing to give up.

Marathons have become extremely popular over the past couple of decades, the number of people signing up for this challenge has increased by 13% globally. The number of people completing the iconic London Marathon has been steadily increasing as well, since the inaugural race in 1981 – in fact, history will be made this Sunday when the one millionth runner crosses the event’s finish line. (To celebrate this great milestone, follow the #oneinamillion campaign to celebrate with every runner who has successfully completed this challenge since the first race.)

It is also interesting to point out that other forms of extreme physical challenges are becoming increasingly popular as well – for example, did you know that triathlon is the fastest growing sport in the UK?

I wonder what is behind this trend – perhaps more and more people are realizing that aiming high outside the workplace helps raise their game in their careers as well? Or perhaps people are looking for a temporary escape from uninspiring jobs and some stimulation?

Whatever their reason is, they hold the winning cards. I can definitely speak for myself – having trained for and participated in various sports challenges have benefitted me not only on a personal, but also on a professional level. I have higher energy levels, feel less stressed and tense when the going gets tough at work; I can remain agile in a fast paced and fast changing environment. I also bounce back quicker when things do not work out as planned – racing has taught me to be resilient and to keep pushing through in the face of adversity, when others come close to crumbling.

Of course, not everyone can or want to run marathons; or run at all for that matter. You may have (temporary or permanent) physical limitations, and as a result, you cannot exercise at the level you want to. And this is fine! However, I hope I have made my point clear: firstly, just work the body that God gave you (and do whatever gets you in the groove!), and secondly, do not let your limitations be your excuses on the road to success and excellence!

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