Founding a start-up can be bad for your health. The all-consuming focus, long hours and high stress can block out everything else. Many founders neglect their personal health and can’t find the time to exercise or take the breaks that are so necessary to recharge for the next battle.
Diet also suffers – the classic view of a founder team has them living on ramen noodles and Red Bull. Even optimum team size is measured in terms of junk food. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos postulated the two-pizza rule for development teams – if a team couldn't be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.
I have been on my own personal fitness journey over the last two years. When I turned 50 my wife gave me a gift, which also contained a not-so-subtle message. The gift was a bicycle and the message was “get off your backside and get moving”.
Running a multibillion dollar division at Cisco had consumed me, and I had fallen into the trap of being too busy to stop. Lack of exercise and bad diet on a hectic travel schedule meant that I was overweight and had low energy.
My journey on the bike has been slow and steady. The first time I went up the hill from Moycullen to Spiddal I thought my heart would burst. Little by little, mile by mile, I got stronger and lighter. Two years later, I have lost two stone and I spent the last week cycling 760km from Paris to Nice in aid of the Irish Youth Foundation. I had never done anything like this before – getting up the 1,912m of Mount Ventoux was inconceivable as I puffed and panted my way towards Spiddal in 2012.
Since 2011, Paris2Nice has raised approximately €2 million for a number of different charities. Paris2Nice is a central coordination hub, which in 2014 supported almost 100 riders to raise funds for 18 charities. The week was an amazing experience with a fantastic group of people – people who had their own heartfelt reasons for fundraising, but were also on their own health and fitness journeys. I took the opportunity of the long miles through the French countryside to chat with some very successful Irish business people and picked their brains on their fitness secrets. Here are the top five tips:
1 Sign up for a challenge
There are many events all over Ireland from 5km fun runs to full triathlons. Whether you are getting started or improving, pick something a few months out that will challenge you and start getting ready for it. Paul Hayes, CEO of Beachhut PR and former marketing director of gaming company Havok, explains: "I spent the last 15 years wining and dining for tech companies all over the world and attempted and failed to get fit many times. Paris2Nice was the only thing that was a scary enough goal to keep me motivated and training regularly. It was the first challenge that got me really thinking about why I wanted to get sustainably fit and how to do it."
2 Use exercise to supercharge your productivity
Worried that you can’t afford the time to exercise? You can’t afford not to. A 2012 study by the Montreal Heart Institute showed that vigorous exercise increased cognitive function because exercise increases blood flow to the brain. Nasa found that compared to people who exercised regularly, people who didn’t exercise experienced a 50 per cent drop in productivity after seven hours of work.
For a start-up founder who works long hours every day this means that investing an hour a day will deliver huge productivity returns over time. This is echoed by the real-world experience of Larry Bass, CEO of Shinawil Productions: "I get time to think when exercising, I also function better if I have exercised. If I do not get exercise, I run out of energy, get tired and find myself falling asleep early".
3 Be a morning person
As a busy entrepreneur, the biggest barrier to regular exercise is fitting it into your day. Start-up life means something unexpected comes up every day – so get a jump-start on the chaos and you’re much less likely to have the excuse of things just popping up.
Bass swears by the morning workout: “I try and get exercise done before the office, in fact I beat the traffic by hitting the gym early. I cannot motivate myself to do it in the evenings after long day”.
4 Get social
Studies have shown that people who exercise with friends are more likely to stick with a programme, exercise for longer and get better results. Let’s face it, you are much more likely to get out from under the duvet on a rainy Saturday morning if you know that your mates are expecting you for that spin around Wicklow, and that the slagging will be unmerciful if you don’t show up.
Hayes loves the camaraderie of group cycles: “Gyms aren’t for me now that group trips by bike are so much more fun. I will always cycle once my bum gets less sore, and kitesurfing is next for me now that I have found my stomach muscles for the first time in a decade”.
5 Let exercise drive your diet
If you set fitness goals and sign up for a challenge, you will be surprised how much it drives your dietary choices.
Bass makes the point that the extra spud or that last pint become less attractive once you realise you are going to have to carry it up a hill the next day. “On the diet side, cut down the booze, try and get a good breakfast, but if you are dining out for business remember that equals more exercise to make up for all the rich food – it is all about balance.”
Hayes has noticed the difference: “I started to train in order to make it easier to change my diet, not the other way around . I was eating a labourers’ diet with none of the labour. I’m now much more aware of the energy levels I need from food and adjust accordingly”.
These tips are not meant to be scientific – just hacks that have worked for some successful entrepreneurs. The best part of signing up for a challenge such as Paris2Nice is that you can give back while getting fit. Our group set a target of raising €50,000 for the Irish Youth Foundation to fund a bicycle programme for Inner-City North Dublin Youth – INDY Bikes. This programme engages children and young people (aged 10-21) from a typical inner-city community into the world of bikes and cycling: doing bike repairs and maintenance; learning the fitness, health and environmental benefits of cycling. The programme has proved to have a very positive effect on the young people who complete it, and with the increase in bike ownership and bike shops around the country recently it also gives them a concrete skill to help find employment.
If you would like to support this project, please donate at http://www.mycharity.ie/event/siliconbarry/
Barry O'Sullivan is CEO of Altocloud, a Silicon Valley-based start-up with a base in Galway