Bento talks to John Neal

John Neal is the Director of Ashridge Executive Education’s Sports Business Initiative. A psycho-physiologist in sports and exercise, John has helped prepare the UK’s top coaches and teams for four World Cups and three Olympics. John also serves as a fitness consultant to the Royal Household.

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BENTO: So let’s suppose I’m not planning on playing football for Chelsea or winning the men’s freestyle at the next Olympic Games in Rio, and am instead banking on a career in, well, banking. Why do I need to worry about all this fitness stuff?

NEAL: Fitness is not just for the body but also the mind. It’s easy to see if the body is in shape but less so with the mind. In the business world, having a clear mind is often the difference between success and failure. So it is essential to keep your mind well-maintained, full of energy and flexible—just like your body.

In the business world, having a clear mind is often the difference between success and failure.

BENTO: Most people, if they’re right out of college and starting their first job, discover that work can be pretty full-on. The hours are long and the pace is intense. People in the early stages of their career tend not to have much control over their own schedule and don’t have a lot of extra money to spend on clubs and trainers. When there are so many other things to worry about, is it so terrible to just let the fitness thing slide for a while?

NEAL: Yes! Your body will survive because it is young and adaptable, but it won’t thrive. Lack of sleep and exercise have a significant effect on decision-making and stamina. You’ll probably make it through the early years until you get that promotion. But inevitably the years and lack of exercise will take their toll. Your energy and spirit will start to wane. The danger is that just when you have made it to the top, ready to take on that big role and change the world…you will go pop! Think of your body as a car. If you want to win in the final lap, you need to maintain the car in the early part of the race.

BENTO: What’s the most important piece of fitness advice you can give to young graduates just starting their jobs?

NEAL: Don’t get carried away by the job. I know it’s exciting and can give you an adrenalin rush, but you will perform better if you balance work with other aspects of your life.

BENTO: How should younger workers structure their workout? What’s the minimum amount of hours they can spend per workout and still stay fit? What’s the minimum number of workouts they can get away with per week?

NEAL: The experts suggest you work out three or four hours per week. But it doesn’t have to be in the gym. You could walk to work until you achieve the status where a limo picks you up. Cycle more! Walk stairs! Bound your way past those middle-aged mid-level execs!

BENTO: What if I don’t want to get all buff and bulky, and just want to keep the weight off and preserve my stamina? Can I just run instead of lifting weights?

NEAL: Running is good but can lead to wear-and-tear injuries like bad knees, hips and backs. And you can run and still get buff! The secret is to sprint! Fast running up stairs or up hills is more dynamic than steady long-distance running, and develops a great physique because it will require you to use many more muscles. Run for short, sharp periods and then walk a little. That’s more fun and exciting than a slow steady-state run anyway, and far better for you!

BENTO: What about other stuff, like Pilates or yoga? Will those things help keep the weight off?

NEAL: Those activities do not contain quite enough fat-burning activity to keep the weight off, but they will take the weight off your mind. Do not underestimate the relaxation effect of slower types of exercises—plus they will improve your posture, flexibility and tone. As long as you remember that you just can’t have a great big cake afterwards!

BENTO: I don’t have a lot of time. What about some of the high-intensity programs like boot camps or CrossFit?

NEAL: Beware of these. In fitness as in life, if it appears too good to be true it often is! There is no fast way to get fit in less time. Over-exercising can lead to demotivation and often injuries. Work in a controlled way and within your own limits…even if some lycra-clad lunatic is screaming at you!

There is no fast way to get fit in less time. Over-exercising can lead to demotivation and often injuries.

BENTO: Counting calories is a pain, especially if I am traveling for work. If I exercise enough, can’t I just eat whatever I want?

NEAL: Calories in and calories out is a fair measure. But you also need a balance of foods and fluids to ensure good health. A diet of cake and high intensity exercise isn’t going to help you.

BENTO:  What should I look for (and look out for) in choosing a health club?

NEAL: Look for a clean, welcoming atmosphere with personal attention and individualized programs based upon an assessment of where you are at the start and where you need to be. The key is to find trainers who are interested in your progress and your goals.

Beware of seemingly cheap long-term deals. That usually means that the gym is struggling and you may lose your money.

BENTO: How long do I have to stick with a fitness program before I see results?

NEAL: The first session will make a difference, and you will feel better after just one walk outdoors. Go on, try it now!

BENTO: What’s the advantage of getting a personal trainer? Is it worth it?

NEAL: A good trainer is well worth it as they can ensure you have a program that works for you and will help with motivation. Make sure you find someone who is qualified. Ask to see references from other clients. Avoid at all cost trainers who mention their celebrity clients; you are the celebrity.

BENTO: What diet advice do you give executives? What are some of the biggest misperceptions we have about nutrition and diet?

NEAL: Avoid processed food, salts, fats and sugar…other than that see above!

BENTO: How much alcohol is OK?

NEAL: Small amounts help you relax and sleep. One unit per day is great. If you start going above that, then the body is dealing with the alcohol as a toxin and it will disrupt your sleep, concentration and you will gain weight. Alcohol is lovely to enjoy but not too much!

BENTO: Between working and trying to have a social life, not to mention exercise, how little sleep can I get away with?

NEAL: Sleep is the gift of the gods. It will make your life richer and more effective. The biggest lesson to learn in high performance with the elite athletes I advise is how to sleep well. A good bed, a safe place and a supportive pillow. Sleep rejuvenates the mind and the body—and you can do it lying down!