The physical toll of starting up: How to be a healthier entrepreneur

Healthy food
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Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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Through Startups Anonymous, Dana Severson has become known for his frank discussion of the mental strain of entrepreneurship. Severson, an experienced founder and entrepreneur, has been very open about his struggles with anxiety.
 
But in the course of discussing his work on mental health with BusinessZone, Severson mentioned another big health concern. “I’ve dealt with weight issues,” he said. “It’s a real problem: gaining weight as an entrepreneur. Quick meals usually lend themselves to bad habits.”
 
It’s a struggle that Ashanti Bentil-Dhue, a Virgin startup mentor and food entrepreneur, is familiar with. After starting The Female Foodpreneur Collective in late 2016, she picked up just over three stone. “It was due to late nights, anxiety, stress and being overwhelmed over the last six months.
 
“Just before starting the business I lost three-and-a-half stone and was going to the gym five times a week. That routine ground to a halt the busier and more challenging my business became. I gradually stopped going to the gym, lived off of convenience meals and got no sleep.”

“You’ve got to find that thing. Everyone has something that’s right for them.”  

Both Bentil-Dhue and Severson directly acknowledge the mental health aspect of physical health, too. According to Jeannie Di Bon, a London-based personal wellness coach, this is a crucial link that's often overlooked.
 
“The mental side of physical wellness is huge. These people are obviously very busy but the first thing to think about is that food isn’t just about the calories you eat. Food, rather than thinking about it as calories, is actually information,” says Di Bon.
 
“It’s information that you’re giving your body, telling it how to operate. Am I eating food to tell my body to put on weight? Am I telling my body to be tired or to be stressed? All the things we eat have an impact physically and mentally - the two things are inseparable.”
 
Then there’s also how poor physical health affects your performance. “I don’t think I understood how poor physical health affected my businesses’ growth,” Severson admitted to BusinessZone.
 
Di Bon recalls an expression she heard at a conference she attended at Harvard University: If you don’t have the time to be sick, you have to make the time to be healthy. The phrase ties into Di Bon’s core message: yes, this does take a little extra time. But, she also adds, it doesn’t need to be a hectic demand on your time, either.

Lots of people know about the slump at the office desk. Don’t just grab cereal or toast - you need some protein in the morning. 

She cites breakfast as an example: “With just five minutes prep the night before, you can very easily make a muesli with rolled oats, any fruit, plant-based milk, nuts, seeds. You prepare that and leave it in the fridge overnight. That lasts me for two-to-three days.”
 
Di Bon’s breakfast is an example of an easy way to avoid what Nature’s Best head nutritionist Shona Wilkinson refers to as “the energy then slump cycle”. Avoiding this pattern means breakfast takes on added importance.
 
“I’ve worked with a few business people who don’t have any breakfast,” says Wilkinson. “They won’t eat until 2 PM and they survive on coffee. The trouble with that is that it messes with your blood sugar and that leads to things to weight gain and even Type 2 Diabetes.”
 
Even if you do eat in the morning, says Wilkinson, it’s also about what you take in. “If you’re just having a muffin, you’re getting a quick release of sugar into the bloodstream. The problem with that is it only lasts about an hour. So then we slump and it triggers your body to crave more sugar.
 
“What you’re really wanting is a slow, steady release of energy into the bloodstream that will give you constant energy. Lots of people know about the slump at the office desk. Don’t just grab cereal or toast - you need some protein in the morning. And yes, having protein at breakfast requires a bit of extra effort.”
 
Nutrition is inextricably tied to exercise as well, another thing many entrepreneurs feel they don’t have time for. For Severson, there was no golden bullet - but he has become militant about blocking time out of his schedule to run.

If you don’t have the time to be sick, you have to make the time to be healthy.

 And importantly, he goes running, not just because it’s good for him, but because he enjoys it. “The real benefit of going and exercising is the mental clarity,” Severson says. “A lot of great ideas come when you’re able to separate yourself; away from everything, just able to conceive. The company that led into Startups Anonymous started over the course of several runs.”
 
As Nature’s Best’s Wilkinson explains, the stress that entrepreneurs experience creates the hormone cortisol (commonly and rather simplistically referred to as the ‘stress hormone’). “We used to create cortisol as a stress response because we were escaping danger,” says Wilkinson. “But now you create cortisol and you’re not fleeing and it’s just being stored as fat. Exercise uses that cortisol for a constructive purpose.”
 
Di Bon adds that it’s not about going mad for exercise. “Try not to think of exercise as a punishment. Think of it more as building exercise into your day. It should be something you love,” she says. “Do you like cycling, walking, running? For me, I love pilates and yoga - it’s something I look forward to.
 
“You’ve got to find that thing. Everyone has something that’s right for them.”  
 
The net result of prioritising your health isn’t a nice-to-have. It affects your performance in a very real way. “Entrepreneurs are conscious about so many things apart from their health,” says Wilkinson. “They’re very bad at looking after themselves. But if you’re feeling good it will affect your work for the better.”
 

About Francois

About Francois

Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.

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