Updated: April 19, 2023
As an entrepreneur, you know that more often than not, running a business is an extreme sport. Part of you loves the adrenaline rush and the roller-coaster experience that comes with it— deep down it’s probably a big reason why you do this for a living. You thrive on stepping up and jumping in to solve these problems. One moment you move heaven and earth to be able to make payroll, the next you have to jump all in to win a big contract, after which you do backflips to appease an unhappy customer, all the while you know you have to get to filing your taxes before it becomes a real problem. This constant wheel of urgency never really stops.
But while stimulating, if you let it, your business can pull you into an all-consuming vortex of stress that leaves you depleted. If you let it punch your adrenal glands, cortisol (the stress hormone) will flow through your body and you will run into physical and/or mental health problems. It is hard to be fulfilled, happy and to grow your business if your immunity system can’t kick the virus out or if you operate in a continual state of deep anxiety. At Driven, we take risks and ride shotgun with business owners across the country; we see you beating the odds and surmounting adversity and we also see how hard some of you struggle to stay on top of your overall health as you deal with this constant series of pressing issues and opportunities.
The data bears out the issue. According to a recent report conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) 62% of Canadian business owners feel depressed at least once a week. Furthermore, nearly half (46%) of respondents say that mental health issues interfere with their ability to work. We understand that stress, depression, and other forms of mental distress are a part of life, and something that many entrepreneurs struggle with.
The time invested in the personal health of an entrepreneur is NOT a trade-off with the health of their business. In fact, these tend to go hand-in-hand. In other words, investing in your personal health (physical and mental health) as an entrepreneurial leader is also the best investment you can make towards the continued success of your business.
Your stamina, energy, resilience, your charisma, and your ability to make good decisions are the primary fuel of your business. It is smart to nurture your inner business athlete. That’s why we feel that it’s important to openly talk about mental and physical health for entrepreneurs and business owners. In this context, we sat with our former President and CEO, Stéphane Marceau, for the first edition of our newest thought leadership series, The Driver’s Manual, to discuss what he does to stay personally healthy as an entrepreneurial leader.
"I have been fascinated about human health and the psychology of wellbeing and performance for as long as I can remember. That is probably why I have tried countless approaches and conducted many experiments over the years. I built what I call my own simple ‘personal health health stack’ over two decades and mainly over the last ten years, and I continue to adapt and fine tune it." - says Marceau.
A health stack is a collection of tools that are used to manage a person’s health and fitness. From nutrition and exercise to sleep and meditation, this can cover anything. At least 10 of these fundamental behaviours make up Stephane’s health stack:
Early on in my career, as I was regularly working through various time zones and transcontinental flights, I used to quote Nas’ famous line from his epic Illmatic album: “sleep is the cousin of death.” I thought sleep was taking precious time away from my work and therefore I aggressively minimized it. That was entirely wrong and misguided; reflective of both my ignorance and a professional culture that used to celebrate the “heroic workaholic.” Sleep is in fact the foundation of both health and performance, and the wind down ritual that leads to it is also extremely important. Like most people, I am probably 1.5-2x better at almost everything I do on days after a restful night vs on days after restless or insufficient sleep.
A good night of sleep will grant one relative superpowers whereas a bad one will diminish your baseline performance. The quality of my sleep is both a predictor of my performance at work and a lagging indicator of my relative wellbeing.
That is why I have for years measured my sleep every night (my favorite tracker is the Oura Ring). I pay attention in particular to my time in deep sleep and to my Heart Rate Variability or HRV (an indicator of health, vitality and stress). What works for me is to go to bed early, then recap in my mind the positives and the learnings of the day, then read non-business, non-fiction books, then sleep for some 7-7:30 hours. I read that Lebron James and Roger Federer both rigorously sleep 12 hours a day. I never could dunk and my forehand is at best variable but this makes me feel comfortable about indulging in my 7+ hours of shut eye every night. I wake up early, at roughly the same time every day as it regulates my circadian rhythm (which is the master clock including for sleep patterns). I like to sleep in a pitch dark and cold room and with a heavy blanket, as these are conducive to greater deep sleep time and higher HRV, though it is a negotiation with my life partner who prefers warmer room temperature and lighter blankets. It boils down for you to a simple question: do you want that natural, sleep-induced superpower enough to organize your schedule around it? For me, That is a slam dunk yes!
Some people kickstart the day by walking their dogs, others take a long shower or mindfully sip their cup of tea; I meditate. It has been my day-start for 25 years. I generally start with intense breathing techniques and then sit down, follow my breath and just quiet my mind. I will vary once a week and instead will follow a guided Yoga Nidra meditation. The benefits are multiple and fundamental for me. Even if it was only the clearer, less cluttered mind to do my work, it would, onto itself, be well worth the 30 minutes a day that it takes.
Most days, I take a cold bath (cold plunge) after I meditate. 5 minutes in water at around 50-55 Fahrenheit (or 10-15 Celsius). If you try it, start with a few seconds and then increase duration over time. You feel the energy flowing through you right after. It is immediate and powerful. For me, the moment after the plunge is the moment the day gets into action mode - everything shifts in high gear from then on. Cold plunging releases adrenaline and dopamine (the motivation neurotransmitter) and it boosts immunity.
I workout most mornings after the cold plunge, half the time with a professional trainer. As someone over 40 years old, I prioritize strength or resistance training (even above cardio workouts which are also essential) as sarcopenia which affects all humans will otherwise reduce muscle mass by 1 to 2% per year. Muscles have many core metabolic functions including glucose disposal and they are a core engine of our power plant. Exercise stimulates our mitochondria (the bacteria inside your cells that produce ATP - kind of like human electricity).
Beyond the known physical benefits of exercise, it undoubtedly makes me more energetic, optimistic and psychologically resilient.
Remember on busy days when you have a time crunch, even a vigorous 30 minute workout is a victory.
I have practiced intermittent fasting for over five years and while it (unfortunately) did not make me lose more than a few marginal pounds, it without a doubt enhances my cognition/concentration and overall energy. During weekdays, I take a protein shake in the morning after working out, but outside of that I do not eat until 3pm. Not eating any carbs (or actual food) at all from 8pm to 3pm (a 19 hour break to your digestive metabolism every day) allows the body to burn some fat as fuel (vs only glucose, the more easily accessible fuel). This metabolic flexibility is a core sign of vitality and longevity. If you try this, it takes a few days to get used to it - and to not be too bothered by hunger. Make sure you do not break your fast with a bag of Doritos - your body will metabolize a lot of what you eat when you break that fast.
Our brain is 70 to 80% water, it will actually shrink if water-deprived and impact mood and clarity of thought. Early in the morning, I take a huge glass of filtered water with apple cider vinegar (two tea spoons to help regulate blood levels). I measured the quantity I drank for a while and realized that I did not drink that much during the day until I turned drinking H2O regularly into a conscious habit.
My wife and I take a 25 minute brisk walk after dinner. Beyond quality time to catch up on our day, the activity dampens the glucose or insulin spike, which can improve your metabolism in critical ways (reduce insulin resistance which is a cause of many or arguably most chronic diseases) and I have a much better sleep when my head hits the pillow.
Every few weeks, I will sit down and journal my experiences. I spontaneously unpack the week or month’s events, the insights, questions and emotions that came with it. I can’t explain why (though journaling is a well researched practice and its benefits are documented and multiple) but I feel good afterwards. It feels right. This practice is in part about cultivating self-knowledge but is also a simple, unstructured means of processing and learning from life’s events and stressors and also about consciously acknowledging the joys and inspirations that come with it as well.
I take a few supplements every day: a multi-vitamin, B complex vitamin, fish oil, D3 with K2, Lion’s Mane in the morning and magnesium at night. Supplements cannot fix bad nutrition which is way more important but they help “supplement” imperfect food habits and help compensate for supermarket food that is reported to be increasingly nutrient-poor. On the nutrition front, our approach is broad strokes: we try to avoid processed foods, look for organic food at the grocery store, privilege lower carb options (even choose lower-carb wine) and buy grass-fed meats from specialized farms. We try to be mindful about food but we are not, nor are we trying to be, fully rigorous. Enjoying food with others is arguably also a top wellness practice and too many restrictions could get in the way of that. For example, during the summer, my teenage boys and I go for ice cream sometimes multiple times in a week. And you know what? That is just fine, especially if we share a Chocolate Ice Cream Oreo Blizzard.
Research is conclusive; people with supportive relationships live longer.
As an entrepreneur, you know that the quality of your relationships is also an important predictor of success over time. Beyond all of the health habits above, I suspect my overall (physical and mental) health is influenced even more fundamentally by the quality of my relationship with family, friends, colleagues, partners, etc. While this may be obvious, developing and nurturing meaningful and authentic relationships is the undisputed king of all practices of any good health stack.
The business case for making time for health
These daily habits may take over 90 minutes a day (not including time with family and friends and eating). You might be thinking that is a disproportionate amount of time for any busy entrepreneur or business leader. Maybe you think you should maximize your time directly on driving the success of your business. And yes, your business naturally requires a great deal of your attention and time. Building a business is indeed a major commitment.
If you want to look at it that way, the business case for that time investment in your personal wellbeing is nonetheless incredibly strong as the 8 or 14 hours you will spend working on your business every day will be so much more effective if you are overall healthy and energetic. The right health stack stands to improve the quality of your decision-making, reduce procrastination, enhance your presence with colleagues and partners, enhance your creativity, keep you more measured and in control under stress, increase overall productivity, you will also bring more structure and discipline to your teams (carry over from your own self-discipline), and so on. As a small business owner or entrepreneur, the need for and the upside of having and sticking to a deliberate health stack is very strong.
How to build and optimize your own health stack
If you want to methodically build your own health stack, it might be best to start with only one new habit and consolidate it before moving on to a second one.
Effective and sticky behaviour change (the only one that matters) tends to be gradual and works by layering small behaviour increments over time. Also, the right health stack is different for everyone, so while discipline is both essential and empowering, experimentation and listening to yourself is also part of this process. You only want to commit to what feels right and in a way that fits your own lifestyle.
As a dedicated entrepreneur, taking daily time to optimize one’s health and performance can feel selfish or overly indulgent at first. In reality, your enhanced vitality and health will not only serve your personal experience, it will also benefit your loved ones and contrary to the conventional lore, it will actually help your business.
Advice and research for Canadian small businesses from our expert team