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Who Will Be Named Fittest Exec?

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If IB’s annual Fittest Executive Challenge accomplishes anything, it demonstrates that former couch potato executives can transform their personal and professional lives. As we introduce you to our 2013 contestants, you will meet several extremely active people who once were sedentary, so when they talk about the many benefits of a fit lifestyle, they can draw from their before-and-after experiences.

Fortunately, their examples teach us much more than that. They teach how transformative even moderate amounts of exercise can be in driving business and professional performance. Health officials affiliated with Meriter Health Services in Madison advise wannabe fitness buffs to choose a form of exercise they can latch onto.

“When a person is starting an exercise program, they need to find an activity or type of exercise that they enjoy and that makes them feel good,” said Lisa Sanborn, lead exercise physiologist and Wellness Institute coordinator for Meriter Wisconsin Heart. “As well, it has to be something that fits into your daily schedule, that you are committed to, and have easy access to.”

According to Sanborn, it’s wise to have an exercise buddy who holds you accountable (and vice versa) and keeps you motivated. Several “Fittest” contestants do just that, but the key is to start out slow and gradually build your level of fitness. “You don’t have to run three miles every day to be healthy and active,” Sanborn noted. “A simple walking program is a great way to start, whether outside or on a treadmill. Start with what feels like a brisk walk and go for 20 to 30 minutes, three to five days per week. As that starts to feel easier to individuals, they should increase the time duration of the exercise program, then increase intensity.”

Even moderate exercise will lead to health benefits, including decreased risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, Sanborn contends. It also might lead to weight loss, weight maintenance, increased muscular strength and endurance, and improved energy levels and better sleep. “To see greater increases in weight loss,” Sanborn added, “the best method is to incorporate an exercise program with dietary changes.”

To put dietary changes into perspective, consider that one pound of fat is the equivalent of 3,500 calories. It’s recommended that an individual lose one to two pounds per week when dieting, and ideally that weight loss should be fat, not lean tissue or muscle. If one pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, then you should try to make a 3,500-calorie difference in your energy intake and energy expenditure, Sanborn explained. “If you break that down, 3,500 calories divided by seven days per week equals a 500-calorie-per-day calorie deficit by adjusting your diet and exercise to get results.”

That’s life

Dr. John Moses, cardiology division chief for Meriter Medical Group-Wisconsin Heart, said the quest for fitness is about living well, however individuals define that. “You can ask 100 people what they need to do to ‘be healthier,’ and all 100 will tell you to exercise more, eat right, maintain a healthy weight, and avoid harmful things like smoking. The real question is, why should you do those things? What is your motivation to change?

Answering that question requires a keen understanding of what brings joy, what’s important, and whether continuing to enjoy it – for as long as possible – is worth becoming fit. Chances are, it is. 

“Life milestones like a new baby, a new grandchild, a new job, or a new opportunity are often natural times to re-evaluate our lives and define what we want to be,” Moses stated. “Discovering what brings meaning and purpose into your life is essential to develop the motivation for change.

“Once we have discovered our motivation, then change becomes a process that has a realistic chance of success.”

Panting for Looser Pants

Rachel Rasmussen: Competing for Most Improved Woman

Rachel Rasmussen, owner and CEO of Rescue Desk Virtual Assistant Services, has developed an amusingly militaristic title for her fitness game plan: “Operation It’s Stupid That My Pants Are Too Tight.” She’s honest enough to admit that and smart enough to do something about it – namely, a mix of treadmill, weight training, yoga and, as the weather warms, hiking in the woods.

Before adopting a more structured fitness regimen, Rasmussen enjoyed being active but liked exercise only when she didn’t realize she was exercising, such as when she played golf, worked in the yard, or played football with her nephew. But now that she’s part of the Fittest Executive Challenge, she has encountered a milder version of Jillian Michaels, a personal trainer whom she describes as a sweet, enthusiastic former kickboxer “with a Barbie-doll figure.”

Rasmussen believes that exercise and smarter eating will not only improve her figure, but also bring a surge of energy to operating a business and improve health measures such as blood pressure. That’s not all she envisions. “I’ll have the physical capacity to take on new challenges, perhaps run a 5K or 10K event one day,” she stated. “I’ll have another tool in the toolbox to deal with stress, and I’ll simply feel happier.”

The happiness could spread throughout Rescue Desk. Her employees have committed to doing the Fittest Executive Challenge along with her, and they have made several changes to improve the overall health of the workforce – taking walks during the lunch hour, taking turns bringing in healthy snacks, and holding each other accountable for reaching exercise goals.

At 37, Rasmussen has other personal objectives in mind. She and her fiancé, Ron Radunzel, will wed this fall, and starting a family will require a higher level of fitness. “Neither of us has children, and I recognize it may not be as easy for us to start a family as it would be if we were younger,” she acknowledged. “But if I can get my body as healthy as possible, it can only benefit us when we’re ready to start the next adventure in our lives!”

Motherhood is one thing, but Rasmussen has yet to take the adventurous step known as the pants test. “I haven’t been shopping for smaller pants yet – too scared! – but I can say that some clothes in my own closet that were a little snug a few months ago are definitely starting to fit a little better today!”

Waging Battle on the Bulge

Michael Barbouche: Competing for Most Improved Man

Michael Barbouche’s first attempt at describing his fitness regimen included two words placed in brackets: [Insert Laughter]. At 6 feet, 285 pounds, Barbouche knows his level of fitness is no laughing matter. The founder and CEO of Forward Health Group is running a healthy, growing business, but he’s blunt about the uphill personal climb he faces.

After a lengthy hiatus measured in both years and number of children (three), Barbouche is back in the fitness game, working with the crew at Pinnacle Health + Fitness to tackle what he considers an enormous challenge. Not one to shy away from self-criticism, he claims to have a trainer who has crafted a couple of different exercise programs to accommodate his “deferred maintenance,” and he’s working with a nutritionist to tackle the “intake problem.”

Although Pinnacle is in the basement of his office building – all he has to do is get on an elevator or take the stairs – “the problem remains time,” he lamented. “I’m still running this entrepreneurial obstacle course ... being swarmed by investment banks and VCs.”

In 2009, Barbouche got on their radar screen by starting a health care measurement company. The life of an entrepreneur, particularly in the emerging health information technology space, does not lend itself to dedicated exercise time. Factor in three children ages 6 to 11, and most of his spare time is spent shuttling to and from the local ski jump hill or ice arena.

Not only do venture capitalists and investment banks want a piece of his blossoming company, last October he agreed to be the national program partner for the American Cancer Society, the America Diabetes Association, and the American Heart Association. The agreement will require Forward Health to harvest data to help doctors and hospitals better track patients, move prevention to the forefront, and limit the onset of chronic diseases like diabetes.

Barbouche has been overweight for a long time. The irony, he notes, is that he could be giving himself diabetes, high blood pressure, and perhaps an assortment of health conditions. “Something is strangely amiss in this equation,” he admits.

His children need a successful dad, but they also need him around. His wife, an internal medicine physician, knows he’s got a tough road back to good health. Barbouche knows it’s time to “fix this.”

“I meet with leaders in the health care policy and research world. I talk to them about how to track chronic diseases like obesity and fix them. I haven’t fixed myself.”


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