Fit for Business

The victors in IB’s inaugural “Fittest Executives” competition offer testimony about the link between wellness and higher professional performance.

Thanks to their determination to pursue a fit lifestyle, they have more energy, focus, concentration, and stamina, which they translate into a higher level of individual business performance. “They” are the winners of IB’s first annual “Fittest Executive” contest, and knowing what wellness could mean for a productive workforce, they also encourage their employees to “chase fitness.”

If there is a void in their lives, it’s those rare but frustrating days when they can’t work out. That’s not to suggest they don’t have their own wellness challenges, but with the foundation of fitness, their issues are more manageable than most. 

In this look at wellness, IB interviewed contest winners about the professional benefits of personal fitness, and we offer total fitness examples from people who are always striving in their professional lives, and who take the same non-settling approach to personal fitness.

Survival of the fittest

Our winners firmly believe holding themselves accountable for fitness contributes to their quality of life, including their professional lives.

David Meier, CFO and co-owner of Badger Bus Transportation Group, the winner in the “Most Improved Male” category, ticked off the obvious benefits – more energy, better concentration, and fewer sick days – but also cited the less-obvious advantage of greater self-discipline. “Can you make yourself do something you don’t want to do?” he asked. “Can you get yourself to the gym when you want to stay home? Can you put a small amount of potatoes and gravy on your plate when passed a huge bowl? Or can you say no to chocolate cheesecake altogether and watch others enjoy?   

“This type of self-control in one’s personal life translates to the workplace and makes you a more effective and efficient leader-worker.”

Matthew Gonnering, CEO of Widen Enterprises and the “Fittest Male Under 50,” believes there are similarities between how you push yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally during exercise and how you push yourself in business. So when you push yourself past the point where you don’t think you can possibly complete another rep, it also pays dividends in the equivalent of a business marathon.

In business, there can be similar breakthrough moments, especially when you decide to change your organization, Gonnering said. “When you change your organization, you’re not subject to the same kind of physical pain you are in the physical world, but you have a lot of emotional and intellectual weight that’s much more difficult to manage,” he said. “There is a confidence advantage, the confidence in your ability to set and meet goals.”

When Yvonne Evers, owner of YME Coaching & Consulting, is able to stick with her fitness routine at least four times a week, she not only has more energy, but she’s also more clear-headed and creative. Evers, who took home the prize of “Most Improved Female,” also doesn’t get as stressed, having incorporated meditation into her routine, but says of her overall approach to fitness, “It has really kept me focused and helped to keep me positive, too.”

For Christi Andringa, president of Candringa! Productions and the “Fittest Female Under 50,” physical and mental wellness lend themselves to professional performance, but the key to it all is a feeling of independence. “The more well we are physically and mentally is based on the degree of control we have,” she opined. “When you’re in control, you feel happy about yourself and that’s the degree to which you are in control of your life. 

“To the degree you feel unhappy about yourself, that’s the degree to which you’re not in control of your life.”


Corey Chambas, the “Fittest Male Over 50,” continues to exercise despite knee injuries that would sideline others. Chambas, CEO of First Business Financial Services, believes that his workout regimen helps give him more energy than he would otherwise have. It might sound counterintuitive, but his core message is that to gain energy, you have to burn energy. 

“Being fit, you’re just naturally more energetic,” he stated. “That feeds that ability, and the other thing it does, depending on the type of exercise I’m doing, is that it preoccupies me. It takes all of my focus, and that’s helpful in getting my mind off of work, which is healthy.”

Lori Veerman, president of Madison Family Dental Associates, said the strength training and TRX training she does has strengthened the muscles in her back and significantly reduced her back pain. “So from an energy standpoint, that’s huge,” said Veerman, the “Fittest Female over 50.” 

“I had chronic pain and numbness in my back. I don’t know that I ever had a disc problem diagnosed, but I was at the chiropractor all the time, and I don’t have to do that now.”

Veerman, who believes water is the best sports drink for moving energy to your muscles, links her early morning exercise to a higher energy level throughout the day. 

Diet, the fuel supply

In the June edition of IB, we focused on the fitness regimens of “Fittest Exec” participants, but more recently they discussed the diets necessary to provide energy. 

Meier has always believed in a “big, healthy breakfast,” usually consisting of oatmeal or granola, and then small and frequent snacks and meals afterward. For the fitness challenge, he increased the amount of raw vegetables and salmon he consumed, and “pretty much” eliminated all desserts and nighttime snacks. In addition to nourishment, the raw vegetables serve the purpose of deceiving two very stubborn body parts. “You can’t believe how full you will feel if you can eat even a small amount of raw vegetables,” he said. “You can trick your brain and stomach into feeling satisfied by eating just 10 pieces of pre-cut vegetables.”

Gonnering acknowledged that his wife became very frustrated with his meal plans, as he opted for a more protein-intense diet for the Fittest Exec training. Thanks to the influence of the Monkey Bar Gym, his training diet had somewhat of a vegan feel to it: fats from almonds and avocados; proteins like chicken, fish, or egg whites (definitely not vegan); vegetables with an emphasis on leafy greens and spinach; fruits such as bananas and apples; and starches like whole wheat and brown rice.

“I concentrated on having one of those with every meal and then a morning snack and afternoon snack for extra protein,” Gonnering said. “I had the extra protein boost to help with energy, endurance, and muscle building. The diet and the intensity of the workout are what led me to change my body type again from the beginning of the summer to the end of the summer.”

He also experimented with daily calorie counts, going from 2,500 to 3,000 and down to 2,000. “It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish,” he noted. “This summer, I found that if I did not have my calorie intake at least at 2,500, I’d start losing muscle. Now, I go for about 2,500 daily calories.”

With diet, Andringa believes in the old adage “junk in, junk out,” and that we have to recognize that food is not so much food, but fuel. That means staying away from preservatives – “If food can sit on a shelf for three weeks, it probably doesn’t need to be in your body,” she said – and drinking more water. 

“If you feed your body crap and expect it to perform, it won’t,” she said. “It’s really important to recognize that your inputs will determine your output. I would say eat as clean as possible, whenever possible, but there are going to be times when you eat the ice cream sundae or you want to indulge in a hamburger or want that glass of wine or maybe a second glass of wine. We don’t want to take away the fun factor and make everything about not eating this or that. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s failure.”

For Evers, the dietary component of fitness is connected to a health metric, high cholesterol, that both sides of her family have struggled with. She had a healthy diet coming in, but the Fittest Execs challenge prompted her to almost completely eliminate red meat. She’s replaced red meat with an assortment of fruits and vegetables, including spinach, and she’s added flaxseed to help lower cholesterol. 

Living with an enemy

Stress relief is considered another aspect of fitness. For some, exercise is the preferred form of stress relief; others require a low-intensity pursuit.

“I think the medical community has pretty much determined that stress is the arch-enemy of wellness and whatever anyone can do to reduce it should be pursued,” Meier stated. “I think to reduce stress, you kind of have to leave the moment and escape to another world. For me, that means pursuing with passion things like golf, reading, and spending weekends in our place in Chicago.  

“Stress is nothing to mess with, and a circle of caring family and friends that you have strong connections to can help tremendously.”

Andringa, who is part motivational speaker, part attitude adjustor, speaks about taking a crash course in happiness and setting priorities in times of stress. “Write them down,” she advised. “Is it family, work, career, or faith? Whatever those priorities are, figure out whether your actions are in line with your priorities. 

“To me, being the best mom involves wellness. When my kids are running in the backyard, I want to run with them. I want to walk with my husband if he wants to take a walk, and I want him to walk with me. By taking actions that align with your top priorities, your life will become less stressful.”

Wellness values

Several of our Fittest Execs contend that fitness has shaped their approach to the company wellness program. It’s not that the programs demand the workforce adopt a hard-core fitness program, but they do encourage people to get active. Given their enthusiasm for fitness, they have to exercise caution in not forcing their lifestyle on anyone else, but they do ponder how much more productive their staff would be if everyone were physically fit. 

Gonnering sees the business value of wellness. Widen Enterprises has created a formal, point-based wellness program where employees are rewarded for reaching various levels of accomplishment. Rewards begin with a Widen water bottle for simply participating, then progress to points of $50, $300, and eventually to a $1,000 cash reward, with different requirements for each step along the way.

While providers assured Widen of a return on investment, the company never looked at wellness from that perspective. Instead, it chose to measure employee participation and satisfaction. In 2009, Widen asked employees: how satisfied are you with Widen as a place to work? According to Gonnering, 55% of employees said they were either very satisfied or satisfied; this year, that number was 80%. “We’ve got 80% of our employees either satisfied or very satisfied to work at Widen, and wellness is part of that,” Gonnering noted.

Points are earned for everything from watching a wellness video, to meeting biometric parameters, to participating in fitness-related community events like the Madison Mud Run or the Gilda’s House Run (the company sponsors the teams and buys exercise apparel). Participating employees log their activities in an online system that tracks the points. 

In addition to piling up points, “there is a tremendous team-building and rapport among employees that builds up,” Gonnering noted. 

While there are some results-driven features, the main objective is increasing employee participation. In all, 41 Widen employees took part this year, roughly half the workforce; of that total, 21 people got the top prize of $1,000. “The goal is getting everyone involved,” Gonnering said. “Getting half the people involved feels good, but not like a win.”

If an organization does not have a wellness program, it can encourage more active lifestyles through the aforementioned community-building opportunities. Madison Family Dental sponsors teams for events like the Bike for Boys and Girls Club and the PurpleStride run-walk, which raises money to fight pancreatic cancer. As Veerman notes, both company and community benefit, and it’s an inducement for employees to train. 


The biggest inducement, however, is the example she sets for her staff. “As an executive, it’s important to be healthy because so many people are counting on you,” Veerman stated. “I need to be there for my patients and all my employees.”

Chambas agrees, and he receives occasional reinforcement from his staff. 

First Business Bank employs a number of very physically fit people, including several who have run marathons, so wellness is part of the corporate culture. “One of the people here, after I won Fittest Exec, sent me a message that I was modeling good balance because people here work really hard,” he recalled. “She made that point that it sets a good example of modeling work-life balance. That really meant something to me.”

Meritorious advice

As a sponsor of the “Fittest Executive” competition, Meriter Health Services offered wellness advice to each participant, but have they taken it to heart?

Several were advised to rest and recover, including Meier. “I chuckled when I read their recommendation,” he admitted. “Of course, they are completely correct, but I’m unable to back down on my regimen. It’s just such a core part of my being that I can’t really make reductions. I do know when my body needs rest, and when I feel it I will take a break.” 

To rest and recover from his workouts, and ease the toll on his joints, Chambas has incorporated a diverse fitness regimen that includes days of intense cardio, mixed in with low-impact stretching. He works out an average of six days a week, but whereas he used to run “a lot of the days,” he works on different parts of the body on different days, and has incorporated yoga once a week. 

“Let’s say I bike on Sunday,” he stated. “When I work out on Monday, I’ll do some kind of strength training for my upper body, so my legs rest as I work the upper body and core. On Tuesday, I’ll do the elliptical, so I alternate more than I used to. That alternating helps, and one day in the mix there is yoga, which is totally devoted to stretching and the mind-body side of things, another piece that I think is beneficial.”

Andringa acknowledges that her  biggest downfall is a lack of rest and sleep. So that her daily routine does not interfere with her children’s pre- and after-school schedules, she gets up at 4:30 a.m. in order to teach yoga, kick-boxing, or cardio power flex classes (and get a workout in) an hour later, which requires her to hit the sack by 9 p.m. There are summer evenings when she goes to bed when it’s still light outside.

“But I get up at 4:30 in the morning, so sometimes I don’t get enough sleep and rest,” she said. “I work as hard at getting rest and sleep as someone that also works at movement. They are both equally important.”

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