How Fitness Has Become the Secret to Multimillion-Dollar Success

Strauss zelnick teaser

Each morning at roughly 6 a.m., Strauss Zelnick (pictured above) is up and getting ready for what the coming day will bring. He might face any number of tasks: meeting with corporate boards, traveling by private jet, overseeing his real estate investments, making creative decisions about media initiatives, or simply tending to his young family. Only one thing about the coming day is certain: Zelnick will find time to exercise. Some days he goes for a run. Others, he lifts weights or maybe does some core training. “It all depends on the day,” Zelnick says, with a shrug in his voice. “The idea is to get moving.”

Getting moving has never really been a problem for Zelnick, the former president of 20th Century Fox and, later, BMG Entertainment. “I always knew, from when I was young, that I wanted to run a movie studio,” he says. “If you say as an adult that you want to run a movie studio, it makes some degree of sense. But as a 5-year-old, it sounds a little insane.” “My father was a lawyer in Boston,” says Zelnick. “I knew no one in Hollywood. I had no connections whatsoever. But I knew what I wanted. It was all about working— and making things happen. Welcome to the movie business.”

Successful Men Reveal How they Juggle Work and Workouts

Mark Wahlberg
Actor, producer, entrepreneur
: “I go to bed early and get up at 4 a.m. to train. Then I eat, take my supplements, spend some time on my lines, and get to work.”

Ryan Seacrest
Television and radio host, producer
: “I schedule workouts like they’re meetings, and make sure they don’t get canceled. I make a deliberate plan to fit a workout in my schedule each day.”

Jeff Glor
Anchor, CBS Evening News Sunday Edition
: “I don’t always get to the gym, or even pack workout clothes if I’m covering breaking news, so I do a lot of workouts in hotel rooms.”

Robert Downey Jr.
: “Discipline is doing what you say you’re gonna do and not doing what you say you’re not gonna do. If you make an appointment, you’re letting that person down if you don’t show. I put myself in a situation where it would be shameful not to show up.”

Jim Larrañaga
Head Coach, University of Miami basketball: “I stay in my routines and focus on the present and on our next opponent. I work out at 7 a.m. five days a week before work. Then I add workouts at 2 p.m. two or three days a week.”

Cory Booker
Mayor, Newark, NJ; 2013 senatorial candidate
: “When I fail to work out, my ability to be effective professionally and personally suffers. So I work out. Because we’re called to great service, not great suffering.”

Michael Strahan
Analyst, Fox NFL Sunday; co-host, Live! with Kelly & Michael
: “We’re our own worst enemies. You doubt yourself more than anybody ever will. If you can get past that, you can be successful.”

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After seven years in Hollywood, and having reached his initial goal, Zelnick headed for broader pastures. Through his company, Take-Two Interactive, he unleashed the smash-hit video games Grand Theft Auto IV and BioShock on the world. Today, he also runs ZelnickMedia, a diversified digital media company with interests in everything from mobile software and services to television. He sets his own hours, and—so far as can be seen—answers to no one. Other than his wife, of course.

An avid cyclist, skier, and boxer, Zelnick often indulges in twice-a-day training sessions, one in the early morning—usually private—and another in the afternoon, the latter often involving his “fitness posse,” a group of like-minded business executives, fellow powerbrokers, and even his own sons. At 55 years old, Zelnick is in great shape for his age. For any age, really. On top of that, business is thriving, and by all accounts he seems happy. He’s firing on all eight cylinders.

“All I know is this: The factor that most correlates with success in business is knowing what you want,” Zelnick says, “and then, of course, capability comes in. Don’t make the pool of what you want too big. Keep your interests reined in. Family. Business. Health. Then, once you identify what you want, it gets easier. When you know what your goals are, attaining them becomes easier.”

Sometime in the late 1980s, something happened to the most successful of America’s businessmen: They realized that the most prosperous and competitive among them were also the most fit. Not that there hasn’t always been a cell inside American business fixated on health. Henry Ford, for instance, was storied to be a nutritional nazi. Legend has it that when interviewing a job applicant, Ford would immediately eliminate the candidate if he salted his food before tasting it. Cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg built an institute in Michigan to promote healthy living. But, just as often, if not more so, bigwigs were rotund men fixated on the business at hand who didn’t mind carrying around a few extra pounds. It made them appear to possess gravitas—or so they liked to believe.

Then, fitness and success got linked up. Despite the fact that Jim “the Running Doctor” Fixx died decades ago and Keith Richards is still vertical, titans have continued to discover a connection between enhanced health and their success in business. Even the once-pale and doughy Bill Gates is in good shape today, as is the squash-playing founder of Boston Scientific, John Abele. Ted Turner regularly works out (he’s said to have a treadmill tucked behind a wall in his office) and scrupulously watches his diet and alcohol use. “You have to exercise—you know, look out for your health,” Turner says.

“There are unexpected benefits to pursuing a life of fitness,” explains Duncan Simpson, Ph.D., a Florida-based sports psychologist. “In fitness, much like in business, there are pushes for personal achievement that often make you goal-oriented. There’s also a quest to push yourself to the limit—you come to understand what’s possible and what isn’t.”

To Simpson, the two—fitness and business success—have now, to a degree, intertwined. Like yin and yang, they feed off each other. “You become focused,” he says. “This translates into skills that maximize the effort. Preparation skills. Problem solving. With exercise and business success, it’s the same. It’s neither the chicken nor the egg.”

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Simpson would know. He’s gotten inside the heads of everyone from pro golfers and tennis players to CEOs, and he’s come to know his way around. “The benefit we’ve seen in our research,” he says, “is that, whether you’re an elite athlete or a highly placed corporate leader, a workout gives you a break from the day-to-day, nine-to-five of being who you are. And you come to look forward to that.” The result is that you go back to your workday more focused and creative than you would without the workout.

Perhaps no one understands this better than Joe DeSena (pictured above). Now a resident of Vermont, DeSena grew up in Queens, NY. “I started with a swimming pool-cleaning business when I was 13,” he says. “All the neighborhood kids worked for me. It’s a metaphor for all business. You load up the truck and you go. You work. You get paid. After I sold the business, that became the model. By 2005, I’d done it several more times. That year I bought a 160-acre farm in Vermont and moved my family there.”
Crunching the Numbers
Proof that working out harder is better than just working harder

The ridiculously overcompensated staff at Men’s Fitness has known this for years: The more you hit the gym, the more you hit the bank. Now a study in the Journal of Labor Research has shown just that. Vasilios Kosteas, Ph.D., of Cleveland State University, the study’s lead author, found that exercise increases cognitive function and confidence—both building blocks of financial success. Some eye-opening numbers from the study:

9.0: Percentage by which the income of people who exercised regularly exceeded that of a person who sat around.

5.2: Percentage by which the income of a person who exercises only one to three times a month exceeds that of someone sedentary.

6.0: Percentage by which a master’s degree raises earnings.

2.2: Percentage by which a sedentary individual who starts to exercise just a few times per month will see his weekly earnings increase.

Along the way, DeSena also found time to graduate from Cornell. Today, he lives—and trains—on the Vermont farm with his wife and four children. He’s a hard-core runner, swimmer, and CrossFit devotee. He’s even brought in a kung-fu trainer to live on the farm and teach his children martial arts. Want to talk discipline? DeSena’s kids are allowed to watch television shows only in Mandarin Chinese. “I want to prepare them for the world,” he says. “I don’t want their lives to be that easy. They’re capable of anything.”

At 44, DeSena is still ferocious. Among his other interests, he is the co-founder of the Spartan Death Race, part of the Spartan Race series, perhaps the world’s most demanding physical test. In it, competitors have to crawl through mud beneath barbed wire, run sprints, chop wood, and perform other physically demanding tasks. The 40-mile course requires about 24-plus hours to complete, making an Ironman triathlon look like a kids’ game. Usually, only about 15% of contestants finish the competition.

“What I like about it is seeing just what a human body can do,” he says. “You know once it’s pointed toward the finish line.” DeSena uses his fitness philosophy to inform all corners of his life. “I guess it started with the movie Pumping Iron,” he says. “That’s when I realized: You can do anything once you’ve set your mind to it. I still do business and things. And when I do, I often put a new person I’m negotiating with through a little ‘Death Race’ of their own. I make them uncomfortable. I ask the really hard questions—just to see what they have in them. My goal is to take slightly passive people and put them to work. It’s fun to watch people grow.”

“Here’s the thing,” he adds, after an uncharacteristically long pause. “You have only one body and one life. And you should use it. My dad was a straight businessman. But he found that documents and fast-food didn’t do it. His body fell apart. I don’t want that. You have only the one body. And you live in it.”

To Wes Moore, “exercise is as important as breakfast.” A former Captain with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq and Afghanistan, Moore (pictured above) is now an author, speaker, and host of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) show Beyond Belief. He also has several business interests in his hometown of Baltimore. His book The Other Wes Moore, about a man who shares his name but is spending his life in prison, was a New York Times best-seller. Asked how he does it all, he says, “Well, let’s say I get by on very little sleep.”

Genial and funny, once Moore slows down, he has a more contemplative side—especially for a combat paratrooper. In his free time, when not working, speaking, or TV hosting, the 34-year-old trains like an athlete—running, boxing, and hitting the weights. “Each person is in charge of his or her own body,” he says. “One of the things I like about exercise is that you can do anything. I even like hiking…I played high school and college sports [he attended Valley Forge Military College and Johns Hopkins University before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford]. It’s one of the pillars of my life.”

Moore loves to run with others. “Really, you can get to know someone on a run better than you can on a golf course.” Of course, that’s not all he gets from working out. “If it weren’t for athletic pursuits,” he says, “I wouldn’t have the focus I have. Exercise brings me focus. It builds a form of confidence. From half a mile, to two miles, to a half-marathon, you get confidence, and that translates into other areas of your life.” For him, daily exercise remains a “helpful time-management tool,” he says. “It helps to dictate the rest of the day.” When not working or working out, Moore spends time with his wife and their two-year-old. “Whether with family, work, or exercise, it’s all the same,” he says. “Being active in your life is being active.”

Back to Strauss Zelnick. The afternoon is soon to be upon us, and there will likely be a “fitness posse” meeting. “I tell you, one of the things I learned as a younger man,” he tells me, “was that you have to know what you’re good at. As a younger man, I wanted to be a songwriter or an artist, but I had no aptitude for it. I just wasn’t any good at it. So, after some soul-searching, I put that desire down and became the backroom business guy, which I am good at. It’s the same with sports and training. You’ll do better if you know what you’re good at. Not that you shouldn’t try new things. But you have to be tough and honest with yourself. It makes success easier.”

Zelnick is rolling now. It’s a mix of high-energy business and training philosophy, all bound up in one point of view—and it’s difficult to know where one aspect of his life ends and the other begins. “When you commit to a serious workout program,” he says, “it gives order to your day. It takes you out of the day-in-day-out of your work. You shake it off. And it’s fun.”

You can hear the excitement and anticipation in Zelnick’s voice. “It’s funny,” he says, “it’s gotten [to a point] where I schedule my trainer into my day planner, just as I do with every business meeting. “And in either case, I never miss a meeting.”

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