From the Desk of Brad Smart: How Executives Stay in Shape

Most A Player executives exercise regularly because they believe:

No Pain, YOU Gain!

In my practice of interviewing candidates for executive jobs, I have asked more than 2,000 high performers about the exercise they get. Years ago I started taking careful note of executives who were “on again, off again” fitness buffs, but who finally managed to stick with an exercise program.

For my informal study, I found some super-fit executives who loved to exercise. But I was more interested in those who, like me, either hated exercise or for some other reason would conscientiously begin a program, but with the first out-of-town trip or touch of a cold, would fall “off the wagon.” This group of executives finally adhered to some guidelines that permitted them to conscientiously maintain an exercise program. I have passed those guidelines on to dozens of executives whom I have coached, and most have embraced a lifelong commitment to regular exercise because … they never push so hard it’s painful. I hope their experience, summarized in this blog, will help you to embrace a healthy exercise program.

My “study” is informal and unscientific, and it’s counter-intuitive. I (incorrectly) assumed that the typical A Player I interviewed was super-disciplined, energetic, and rigorous in sticking to an exercise program. Not so! Most got into exercise gradually, and over time got to aerobic levels, supplemented with mild muscle building (weights, Nautilus machine, etc.), some stretching, and at least occasional sessions with a trainer.  They are lifelong exercisers (is that a word?), because they embody No Pain, You Gain.


We’re all deluged with conflicting information about how to be healthy. For what it’s worth, my informal sources have provided a simple model for HOW “No Pain, You Gain” works. Please pretend that you are a couch potato and your identical twin brother is super fit. He suggests that you two jog for 40-minutes. You do … and regret it, because it was painful. After the exhausting jog, you were famished, but your twin wasn’t at all hungry and gleefully told you why: fit people burn a lot of fat when they exercise and unfit people mostly burn glucose, keep their more-than-ample fat, and get hungry. That doesn’t seem fair! You needed to eat something, so you grabbed a quick sandwich, and sat in front of the TV the rest of the day .… like a … couch potato.

The next morning you went to your (rarely used) gym, got on a treadmill for an hour and – hooray! You burned off 200 calories. That’s what the machine told you, so it’s a fact, right? You reported this to your friendly twin brother, who responded, “You can’t ever burn enough calories with occasional intense exercise.” “Huh? The damn machine said I lost 200 calories!”

Twin: “You’re to blame. You became a couch potato.”

You: “So, am I stupid, crazy, lazy, or what? It can’t be that my metabolism sucks because we are identical twins and you’re in terrific shape!”

Twin: “Wrong! Simple. My metabolism is effective because I exercise regularly.  Yours sucks because your rarely exercise.”

You: “That’s all?”

Twin: “That’s about it. 30-minutes, three times per week, plus stretching and light weights 15-minutes a day three times a week, plus sensible nutrition, and it’s the fountain of youth and happiness!


This is an enormously complex subject, but through googling I learned a few essential, simple points:

  • Metabolism converts food to energy.
  • Your body burns sugar and fat simultaneously. When sugar is rejected by unfit muscle cells, it is driven into fat cells. A fat person stores glucose (sugar) as fat, but a fit person stores it as glycogen (that’s the good stuff, that keeps your brain going, among other things).
  • Your body does three things with calories – it creates energy, produces heat, and stores fat. Muscle accounts for up to 50% of body weight, and accounts for 90% of metabolism. So, if you ate 1000 calories, 900 are burned in your muscles, if you’re fit.
  • If you lose muscle, through silly crash diets, you lose the metabolizing machinery – the fat gobblers!
  • So, if you have less muscle, calories will be stored in the form of … FAT.
  • If you exercise too hard (anaerobically, or more than 80% of your maximum), your body can’t convert fat to energy, but instead uses sugar. If you become “light-headed” with heavy exercise, your body is telling you, “If you’re so stupid as to continue this nonsense, I will make you pass out so that I can get some glucose back into your brain!”


This is the most important concept in metabolism. Don’t even bother Googling how enzymes are related to proteins and other large, complex molecules. It’s too complicated. If you are the curious type, do it get a Masters Degree in DNA too. All you might really need to know is this:

Anaerobic Exercise Builds Sugar-Burning Enzymes

Aerobic Exercise Builds Fat-Burning Enzymes

Twenty-four hours a day DNA is working to repair enzyme proteins, which are very fragile. Regular exercise builds enzymes.

  • If you don’t exercise much, you have neither enzymes that burn sugar (calories), nor enzymes that burn fat.
  • If you exercise too hard, your body needs a burst of energy, sucking the sugar out of your body and adding sugar-burning enzymes.
  • Only aerobic exercise (65%-80% of your maximum) builds fat-burning


Those silly treadmills that tell you that you just burned 200 calories completely missed the point. If you exercise for 30-minutes three times a week aerobically, you build the fat-burning enzymes that will enable you to burn off fat better even when you are sleeping!

I’m not burning a lot of calories while I am exercising, but my body metabolism is making me a fat burning machine. 

How cool is that? Phrased differently, only aerobic exercise a minimum of three times per week will grow you enough fat-burning enzymes. Do it, and your metabolism will “eat fat.” The coach-potato metabolism is a machine built to store fat, and that’s the difference.

You need muscle to burn fat. If you only exercise the muscle to half its capacity, as stated above, it will atrophy to 50% but keep the same size because of the added marbled fat. As the couch-potato muscle atrophies, body chemistry (metabolism) changes, so fewer calories you take in are actually burned up. Instead, they’re stored, as … you know what … FAT.

So, now you know why that jog with your brother left him burning fat and left you hoarding fat.


  1. Exercise aerobically, three times per week.

A medical examination (with a stress test) is recommended. Work with a trainer to begin with – NOT the all-American type who will scream at you to try harder, but one who respects No Pain, You Gain.

  1. Start slowly.

Life is full of too many stresses to add another one. Taking 20 to 30 minutes per day for mild exercise is enough of a burden, without adding pain to it. In recent years, it seems that intense exercise every 5-minutes for 1-minute does a lot of good. Your exercise program should be easy enough that even with a cold or not much sleep the night before, you can exercise without much discomfort.

The traditional way of calculating your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age. I read that most people can exercise in the 65%-80% range of that, but a stress test might be a lot more scientific.

  1. When you can spare the time, add weights/bands plus flexibility exercises on the non-aerobic days. Again … with a trainer until you don’t need one.

Most executives I have interviewed really like doing a light weight workout on days they don’t jog, bicycle, or participate in other aerobic exercise. Particularly in those over-40 years of age, gently working the major muscle groups makes it easier to bend down and pick something up, removes a lot of aches and pains, and makes you look (muscle tone), act (sprightly) and feel (more energy) better than if they just do aerobic exercise.

  1. Make it convenient.

Exercise clubs are, for most executives, inconvenient. A 25-minute workout becomes 1.5 hours, going to and from the club. Working out in sweat pants with a lot of 25-year-olds in “hot” neon outfits can be intimidating, and the rock music deafening. So, most executives I interviewed walk down to the basement, get on the exercise machine (and watch news on TV) and feel great all day after only investing 30-minutes in this process (plus a little warm up and cool down).

  1. Use a chart.

At a minimum, keep a ”3×5 card”, one for each month. Enter a chit mark every time you exercise. Don’t throw away the January card until there are twelve aerobic chit marks. A lot of executives do 15 “aerobic” and 15 “weight” sessions each month. If you miss a day or two, do “double workouts” perhaps on weekends, but all this amounts to is 30-minutes on the exercise machine, 30-minutes working light weights (or Nautalis-type machines) and stretching. At the local health club, the 25- year-olds would call that a “wimpy” workout. They’re nuts.

It doesn’t do you any good to cram 3 aerobic workouts into 1 day. Your body needs time to rebuild.

The chart is necessary simply because we tend to “kid ourselves.” Initially when I asked thousands of executives about their workout routine, the majority said they worked out “regularly,” but when asked what happened in the past week, the answer for the vast majority has been, “Well, uh, actually I didn’t have time.”

  1. Make it a priority. 

It’s a heck of a lot easier to stick with a program that is never painful. Push yourself to a 2 or 3 level (on a 10-point scale) but never higher. Executives who have made exercise a habit consider it one of the most important components of their life. There are several computerized health profiles which are used in executive physicals, and they permit converting your ”wellness habits” into extended life expectancy. It’s gratifying for executives who have been on a regular exercise program (with proper nutrition) to find their life expectancy actually increasing, year after year. Like many executives you might find that you can achieve a level of wellness at the 98th or 99th percentile, for people your age, with an average of only 20 or 25 minutes per day of exercise (plus a low-fat diet, wearing seat belts, etc.)

Good luck with your next exercise program – I hope it lasts a long, vibrant lifetime!

Dr. Brad Smart is Founder and CEO of Topgrading, Inc. Topgrading is dedicated to helping companies of all sizes maximize the hiring of high performers. Topgrading assesses candidates for senior positions (where the costs of mis-hires are high) and trains all managers to create teams of almost all high performers.

Brad has seven published books on hiring; the most recent three (the first, second, and third editions of Topgrading) were all best sellers. Brad, and President Chris Mursau’s new book, Foolproof Hiring (Forbes Books), is available for purchase by clicking here. After just six weeks, Foolproof Hiring, has achieved Amazon Best Seller status.

Brad can be reached at

To learn more, download our free eGuide or attend our next Topgrading Webinar. Our webinar explains the most effective recruitment methods, how to immediately identify the most honest, high performing applicants, and how to (finally!) verify what candidates tell you (since reference calls are usually worthless).

Contact us to learn more.

Improve your hiring success with Topgrading. Our proven hiring process will transform your selection methodology so that you get better hiring results across all industries, including hiring HR professionals.  Our leadership and candidate assessment tools will help you assess, hire, retain, and grow outstanding team members. Contact us to learn more!

Scroll to Top