Why running a business is like going to the gym

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There are a few things that mark the upward turn of running my own business. One of those events was joining the gym a couple years ago.

This simple act of investing in myself not only greatly boosted my mental healthy, got me away from my desk and moving, but it helped give me more of a regimen, and that discipline directly translated to working better, smarter and in a more balanced way.

From the outside a lot of aspects of running your own business can look glamorous, from the freedom and flexibility to certain perks. But like everything done right—that looks easy—there’s a lot of work that goes in behind the scenes.

Most of my university experience was surrounded by collegiate athletes. During those years I saw exactly how the early morning practices paid off to win races, and later set up my teammates for success off the water. The thing is “in the real world” you don’t have to work out daily, or fit in double practices. Even a shorter routine can have big pay off. For me that means 3x a week.

When I started bringing the gym back into my life I often felt like that I had to do crazy cardio classes for it to “count”. While it was great for getting out aggression, over time, I’ve realized my “secret sauce” is a mix of cardio, but also core strengthening and stretching. I tried a bunch of classes and found what I liked, and what challenged me in different ways.

Running my own business I have to make enough decisions to make myself, so I’m perfectly content to have someone else tell me what to do for an hour. They can motivate me while they’re at it ;) My weekly BodyBalance class is a mix of yoga, tai chi, and pilates set to music. But I also enjoy BodyCombat for getting to punch and kick out any frustrations of the week, or depending on timing there’s BodyPump. And then there’s Zumba that’s just a good time.

All to often we forget that work can be fun too! For my own entertainment, I’ve added some AquaGym courses too. I love the water, and it’s low impact, which my body needs sometimes. And I still get a solid workout out of it.

Just going through the movements is enough to start, but as you get into it, you’re not necessarily going to grow until you push yourself too. For years I used the same weights in BodyPump. Then one day I finally challenged myself for heavier weights for the squats. Ohh yeah, I felt that. That’s how you get stronger. But it’s a balance between pushing yourself, and knowing your limits as not to injure yourself or set yourself back. Self-care is a key to success, but so is not being afraid to ask for help or guidance.

When it comes to classes, sure I have my favorite teachers. In fact, I do my best to build my schedule around them. However, life doesn’t always work into our perfectly designed boxes. Fortunately, there are countless other options and times. I’ve actually found that I enjoy learning from other coaches because inevitably there are little tweaks to improve my form or feel the stretch that I hadn’t considered before. The same thing happens in business where you say to yourself, “OMG that was so easy, why didn’t I do that before!?!”. Yep, it’s about always learning.

There’s an great TED talk from surgeon Atul Gwande called “Want to get great at something? Get a coach!”. He points out that athletes never stop having a coach or looking to improve, so why should it be any different in a professional context? Coaches are your external eyes and ears who can see things that you may not. (Here’s a short clip if you don’t have time for the full talk.) It’s good food for thought.

For the first several years of business, I’ve been able to make it work from what I’ve read (books, and online), through podcasts, and countless conversations, but next year I’ve already signed up for my first business coach to see where things can go from there. There’s always something new to master.

I’ve also found—as in school—that the simple act of trying to get a spot in the front of the class greatly impacts my experience at the gym that day. Not only can you better see what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s as if the coach is right there cheering you on. The simple act of finding my way to the first or second row means I can better focus on my task for that hour.

The other motivating force of the gym is the simple reminder of you’re not in this alone. Self motivation can go far, but being in a room or space with people doing the same thing makes it so much easier to stop making excuses, and make things happen. No one says you have to go this alone, and asking for help doesn’t make you weak.

You may not need these unofficial cheerleaders forever, but they can be good for getting things off the ground. In my real life, I’m part of a Mastermind group that regularly meets to check in and support each other. Just because you don’t see it from the outside, doesn’t mean there aren’t other factors working on the inside.

On a highly practical level, the gym is a good reminder to stay properly hydrated. At an office job it’s easy to look for any excuse to have to get up—walk to the kitchen, refill your glass, go to the bathroom, repeat. But when you’re the boss or working from home, you can forget to do this. I tend to keep a large water bottle near me throughout the day to make sure I get through it, just as I would at the gym. When I’m not well hydrated, I’m definitely more tired and less efficient at what I set out to do.

Hydration also ensures you have to get up and move a few steps regularly. The unforeseen benefit when I bought my AppleWatch was that it reminds me to stand up every hour. Sounds silly, but the older you get you can totally feel it in your body when you don’t get up to move enough. Hello, tech neck! It’s totally a real thing. Chances are we’re not working from the most ergonomic chairs, so stepping away for a few minutes regularly is the next best thing.

And while it all sounds like I go to the gym to stay in shape, but really it’s about preserving my mental health. When you run your own business, no matter how on top of things you are, things will always go wrong and curveballs will come your way. Or that perfect storm happens despite all your pre-planning. Even if you’re good at rolling with the punches, it’s so helpful having a way to release these stresses. Often more simply, I’ll just go out for a walk in my neighborhood (sometimes with a podcast in my ears, other times unplugged).

While the gym seemingly doesn’t have anything to do with my business, it also has everything to do with my business. I once rebelled from discipline, but now I embrace it. After a lot of searching I’ve found it’s what works for me, for now. There are so many lessons we can take from other industries, gym included.

Now it’s your turn! What have you found out works for you? How do you strike your balance or harmony? Share it in the comments below so we can all keep learning and growing.

p.s. Here’s a funny story from my Underwater newsletter about my “affair” with the gym.

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