ulf nylund

Get energy for meetings – the entire organisation benefits from a physically active leader

Tiia Alkkiomäki
The health benefits of exercise are hardly surprising to anyone. It goes without saying that an active lifestyle increases well-being, gives energy, and helps you fall asleep easily at night.

Researcher Harri Raisio, a university lecturer at the University of Vaasa, and his partners have studied the relationship physically active leaders have with exercise. According to the research, exercise is sought as a means of coping with everyday life, succeeding at work, and maintaining the capacity to work. 

Sometimes exercise can be so important – even compulsive – that inactivity causes stress or triggers feelings of guilt. Exercise is experienced as an obsession, for example, when competitiveness or goal-orientedness goes before one's own well-being. 

Bright ideas and a functioning body 

Leaders have a heavy workload. Long working days, meetings, and constant scrutiny and criticism put them under pressure. The desire to stay healthy and well in the present and in the future drives leaders to exercise. 

Everyone benefits from exercise, but for leaders in mentally and physically demanding work, the benefits are substantial – even the whole organisation can benefit. 

Ulf Nylund, bank manager at Vaasan Osuuspankki, does skiing, running, weight training, and golf. Nylund reports spending five times a week on physical activity, averaging 8 to 10 hours of exercise per week. That's about how much other physically active leaders spent on their hobbies in the study by Raisio and his partners. 

A tightly scheduled business trip abroad with jet lag can be compared to a physical sporting event.

Good physical condition is beneficial in a leader's work, even if the work itself does not necessarily require physical effort. For example, a tightly scheduled business trip abroad with jet lag can be compared to a physical sporting event. 

– Exercise makes me feel great. I'm alert right from the start of the day, and my thoughts are clear even at 7 am. I get a lot done during my workdays when I'm in good shape. 

The mental benefits of exercise are related to what Nylund mentions of being alert, having crisis resilience, and dealing with disappointments. Leaders with a background in competitive sports felt that demanding training had increased their resilience, flexibility, and ability to tolerate disappointment – qualities that are also useful in working life. 

In addition to good performance, exercise also helps with recovery. In the study, the interviewed leaders saw exercise as a way to reset their brains. 

– I feel that my good condition has helped me maintain good concentration and resilience If I've had a tough or difficult day at work, I like to recover by doing exercise at the end of the day. Many things have fallen into place when I've been skiing or running. Stress disappears on the ski trail or running path, says Nylund. 

Exercise makes me feel great. I'm alert right from the start of the day, and my thoughts are clear even at 7 am.
Ulf Nylund

The elusive difference between harmony and compulsion in exercise 

A harmonic relationship to exercising refers to an innate joy of physical activity. In this case, the passion for exercise is not compulsive, and the exerciser can stop the activity at any time. The exercise is flexible and balanced with other aspects of life. Even if one is exercise-oriented, others are not required or even expected to be the same. 

Compulsion, on the other hand, refers to a feeling of guilt when you cannot exercise as planned. The role of exercise in life can become so significant that one continues to exercise despite illness or injury or repeatedly prioritises it over important family or work events. 

A compulsive passion often involves a motivation to exercise for recognition. This is then external motivation, meaning that external rewards motivate to exercise – in this case, a physically active leader gets recognition from others. 

– However, it is important to note that compulsive and harmonious passion to exercise are not mutually exclusive but often coexist in passionate exercisers, clarifies Raisio. 

Ulf Nylund skiing in Italy in January 2023. 

Time is set aside for exercise 

Exercise has been shown to be significant not only in preventing, treating, and rehabilitating several illnesses, but it also plays a significant role in maintaining and improving the ability to function. Additionally, exercise can have a positive impact on mood and mental health. 

For active leaders, exercise is a way of life and a source of joy. It is an important part of daily life, and time is set aside for it. According to the study, actively exercising leaders often have been active already in childhood, but sometimes the joy of exercise has only been found in adulthood. 

Like many other leaders, Nylund sets aside time for exercise and takes it into account when planning his schedule. Exercise is almost a must – it provides vitality and clarity of thought, increases creativity, and helps recover from work-related stress. According to the leaders that took part in the study, they can feel irritable, sluggish, or anxious if they cannot exercise as planned. 

Nylund says he is an early riser and gets up daily at around 5.30 in the morning. He is already on the track or at the gym an hour later. 

– This rhythm works well for me because my calendar is constantly filled with evening meetings or events. 

The two-year (2021–2022) research project on exercising leaders in a complex operating environment was conducted with the support of Urheiluopistosäätiö, a Finnish sports institute foundation. The researchers in the project were Harri Raisio from the University of Vaasa, Tero Kuorikoski from Pajulahti Sports Institute, Tero Rantala from LUT University, and Mikko Rask from the University of Helsinki. 

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