An executive regimen that works - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
January 6, 2014

An executive regimen that works

Eat Move Sleep
Tom Rath
Missionday, 246 pages, $29.50
If you can be a better leader through healthy living, the key to success in your job may lie in three words: Eat, move, sleep.

Certainly Tom Rath believes they are important. And Rath, a Gallup researcher, has offered cogent advice before to government executives, in his writings on using their strengths at work and employment engagement. But there’s another side to Tom Rath that only emerged publicly recently: His genes dictate a predisposition to serious illness. He has a rare genetic disorder called Von Hippel-Lindau, diagnosed when he was 16, that makes him susceptible to rapid cancerous growth throughout the body. Recently, for example, he has been battling cancer in four areas simultaneously.

So he needs to lead a healthy lifestyle to maintain his energy, productivity at work – and his life. And he brings it down to those three words: Eat, move, sleep.

“No matter how healthy you are today, you can take specific actions to have more energy and live longer. Regardless of your age, you can make better choices in the moment. Small decisions – about how you eat, move and sleep each day – count more than you think,” he writes in his new book, Eat Move Sleep.

“As each year goes by, I learn more about how I can eat, move, and sleep to improve my chances of living a long and healthy life. Then I apply what I learn to make better choices. I act as if my life depends on each decision. Because it does.”

For eating, he stresses that – in an era of fad diets – the quality of what you eat is more important than the overall quantity. Indeed, research has shown that quality of food matters even more than levels of physical activity. So the notion that if you eat everything in moderation you’ll be healthy is misleading. If you plan on dieting, keep in mind that most diets have some helpful elements but they must be applied within a holistic approach to eating. So keep the best elements of all the various diets you have tried as you make your daily eating choices.

He also urges you to think of every bite you take as either a net gain or net loss for health. “Every bite you take is a small but important choice. Every sip requires another brief choice. If you make a decision that does more good than harm, such as opting for water over soda, it’s a net gain. When you pick a side of fries instead of vegetables, it is a net loss. Even seemingly positive choices can turn into a net loss if you are not careful about everything that goes into a particular food or snack,” he advises.

He points to a restaurant he visits with a nutritious-sounding, and very popular, entrée called Harvest Salad. But by the time you taste it, the fried chicken and bacon and fat-coated ranch dressing mingled among the healthy vegetables has turned your glorious intentions into a woeful outcome.

Barbecue sauce, he warns, is essentially pancake syrup for meat, if you check the ingredients. Sure, salmon is healthy for you, but coated in barbecue sauce…not so much. Coffee is fine, but if you add sugar and cream every sip can become a net loss. Green tea is healthy, but the green tea drinks in the supermarket with sweeteners and preservatives…again, not so much.

He also wants you to be more conscious of protein levels, aiming for a one-to-one ratio between carbohydrates and protein in what you consume. Definitely stay away from food with a ratio of more than five to one, carbs to protein. That will mean cutting out snack chips and cereals, with a 10 to one ratio. Watch your energy rise.

His ideas on moving may be the most important in the book because they are least known. Most government executives know the value of exercise, and many try to cram it into their busy lives, perhaps with a workout before or after work. But he says that’s not enough. You need to exercise every 20 minutes, rather than spending your day sitting, in meetings and across from your computer.

“Sitting is the most underrated health threat of modern times. This subtle epidemic is eroding our health. On a global level, inactivity now kills more people than smoking,” he insists.

It’s a chilling warning. It’s bad enough having to find time for exercise. But now he says doing our jobs – which for most government executives involves sitting on their fanny – is worse than smoking.

Sitting makes you fat, the number of calories you burn tailing off and enzyme production, which helps break down fat, dropping by 90 percent. After two hours of sitting, your good cholesterol drops by 20 percent. “Perhaps this explains why people with desk jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease. Or as another diabetes researcher put it, even two hours of exercise will not compensate for spending 22 hours sitting on your rear end,” he writes.

So stand, stretch, and increase activity as much as possible – whether at work, or at home watching TV or reading. Simply standing in place increases your energy more than sitting. Look at a parking spot further away from your office not as a burden but as an opportunity – and, oh yeah, the stairs instead of the elevator is also a wise choice.

Your goal should be to take a two-minute activity break every 20 minutes. Play a timer, and when it rings get off your duff. Stand and stretch, or walk around the office. And he assures you that taking breaks every 20 minutes won’t ruin your focus. It will actually refresh you, increasing creativity and productivity.

For sleep, it’s simple. Get eight hours. Every night.

Actually, maybe more than eight hours. He summons up the human performance studies of K. Anders Ericsson, which writer Malcolm Gladwell brought to wide attention because it showed that elite performers needed 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach levels of greatness. But Rath highlights another important factor in the landmark 1993 study: On average the best performers slept eight hours and 36 minutes. That’s probably more than you are getting now.

“One less hour of sleep does not equal an extra hour of achievement or enjoyment. The exact opposite occurs. When you lose an hour of sleep, it decreases your well-being, productivity, health, and ability to think,” he writes.

It’s not just the many demands on our time. He notes that in some circles it’s considered a badge of honour to go with reduced sleep. Shows how strong you are, or how committed to your work. But he argues, “You are simply a different person when you operate on insufficient sleep. And it shows. Your friends, colleagues, and loved ones can see it, even when you are too sleepless to realize your own condition.” One study he cites found that losing 90 minutes of sleep reduces your daytime alertness by one-third – a huge amount.

If you think you’re an exception – you can get along with less sleep, perhaps far less sleep than eight hours – you’re probably wrong. Statistics show only 2.5 percent of people can get along well with less than eight to nine hours of sleep (while a further 2.5 percent need more than nine hours). Catch-up doesn’t count, by the way. Sleeping in some days just disrupts your circadian rhythm, so is also unhealthy. He also suggests keeping the room dark, about one to two degrees cooler while sleeping than during the day. Having a fan humming can be helpful by blocking out disruptive sounds, such as vehicles or barking dogs.

So there you have it: Improving your health in three steps. Eat. Move. Sleep.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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