CEOs Lead by Example With Fitness and Healthy Lifestyles

By Amy Castor (for Mass High Tech)

At Spire Corp in Bedford, if an employee takes a long lunch to squeeze in a run or a bike ride, no sweat. In fact, when he gets back, he can use one of the showers in the office. When it comes to exercise, the photovoltaic equipment maker believes good health is king.

Spire’s culture of fitness trickles down from the top: CEO Roger Little is a bit of an exercise fanatic. The 67-year-old is training for his 11th Ironman triathlon in Hawaii this fall: That’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26-mile run. He keeps a year-round, three-to-four-hour-a-day workout schedule that few can match.

Every morning before work, Little goes for a run, a bike ride, or both. Then at lunchtime, he bolts to the gym for an hour of lap swimming.

In his view, endurance training has a positive effect on job performance. It keeps him energized and makes him more efficient.

“I’m always on top of things,” he said, adding that, “I’ve never met a decision I can’t make in 20 seconds.”

When traveling, Little said he slips in and out of time zones with ease. And while he thinks about business “every minute” of the day, his mind drifts into another zone when exercising — or swimming, especially — where answers to problems often become more clear.

He wants his employees to be fit, too, so they experience similar benefits. He feels it’s important not to be tolerant of bad health habits. For example, he does not allow smoking. On the other hand, he said, “I can’t insist employees do things to improve their health. I can only be a role model and make it easier for them.”

The company is located near a rail-to-trail bike path, and Spire (Nasdaq: SPIR) covers a portion of membership cost at a local gym. “Exercise trains the mind” is also the belief of Zeus Estrada, CEO of Z-tech Associates, an IT solutions provider in Lexington. When the 48-year-old wasn’t feeling challenged enough by run-of-the-mill marathons, he took up “ultra marathons,” those races that extend beyond the traditional 26.2-mile marathon. He has run the Western States 100, the Vermont 100, and has completed 70 miles of the Leadville Trail 100. “I have to go back and finish that one,” he added.

Estrada thinks sport builds perseverance and teaches one how to work with others. “An athletic background brings a certain discipline and team structure into the business,” he said. “You learn to maneuver the political environment and weather the ups and downs of it.”

He sees parallels between ultramarathons and business. A runner goes through cycles in a long race. “After 30 miles, your glycogen is gone,” he said. He talks about falling into a “dark hole,” where all you have is your will to get you to the next aid station to refuel and eventually start to feel good again.

“It’s the same in high tech,” he said. “Business goes down and comes back up. But you have to stay positive and think long term.”

When it comes to health and fitness, most companies equate dollar savings to health-care costs. According to Aaron Day, CEO at Tangerine Wellness Inc., a Boston firm that specializes in corporate weight-management programs nationwide, health insurance is a top expenditure for companies, and “almost 70 percent of claims are preventable and due to lifestyle conditions.”

He understands firsthand the pitfalls of working too hard and eating too much. He is a confessed “classic type-A personality” who used to neglect his health, until he lost 100 pounds in 18 months through diet and exercise.

Getting employees to change their tune is a commitment. “It’s important the CEO take the lead, but you have to be aware of the legal concerns and risks of getting involved too directly,” he said.

Quick fixes, like dumping the vending machines, won’t solve the problem. “Some companies offer employees a gym membership, but the ones who take advantage of it are often the ones who go anyway,” said Day. His approach to weight loss it to create teams and offer financial incentives to motivate people. “In a high-tech company, for example, it might be good to maximize that known tension between sales and engineering,” he said.

But for people like Little and Estrada, feeling good is a contagion that is easy to spread. “I just hired a guy,” says Estrada, “I told him, ‘Look, one of the clients I’m putting you at is right off the bike path. You can bike right there.’ Why sit in traffic when you can bike to work?’”