The challenges of entrepreneurship can be physically tough—the long hours, stress and work travel can eventually take a toll on your health, unless you take steps to regain a work-life balance. For an entrepreneur or executive leading a growing company, keeping fit and taking breaks from work is a necessity: you have to plan for health and fitness in the same way you plan your career. This will help you to keep a fresh perspective on any problems your company encounters and, ultimately, to make better business decisions.
I have just returned from an exhausting tour in which I visited five countries in less than a month. It started with a memorable week in New Zealand, moved on to Chile, Brazil and the U.K., and finished in India. And I have travelled extensively ever since I was helping to build Virgin Records into a global music business; now, with our new business development focused on emerging markets and many of our philanthropic initiatives based in Africa and Asia, it is unlikely that I will be able to slow the pace and extent of my business travel. Staying alert and being effective on such gruelling trips takes preparation.
But for me, fitness is a hobby. At school, I was a very keen sportsman until a knee injury cut short my hopes of professional success. Unable to pursue my dreams, I threw myself into my early business career, but my passion for sport remained, and I have continued to play tennis, ski, sail and, more recently, to kite-surf.
I try to fit in at least one workout per day, and sometimes two, if I have the opportunity. Our home on Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands, is a great place for me to keep up my swimming. Most mornings when I am there, I head off for a swim around the island—about three miles. It is the best way to clear the head (sometimes from the excesses of the night before!) and sets one up for the day. And after a long day of correspondence or calls, there is nothing better than setting off on my kite-surfboard—I soon feel refreshed and renewed.
Fitness goals aside, it is important to do something that helps you to achieve distance from the pressures of work. Many people who are faced with the increasing pressures of the modern, global and “always-on” business world struggle to stop working. By focusing on something else—in my case, on sports—you gain perspective on other areas of your life, helping you achieve that elusive work-life balance.
Many of my pastimes are ones that my family enjoys too, which has helped a great deal. There is no better way to forget the stresses of a poorly performing company or the frustrations of not closing a deal than kite-surfing with your children or going with them on a long ski through the mountains.
During periods of travel, you have to plan for your exercise. In April 2010, when I signed up for the London Marathon, I faced the challenge of trying to fit the intensive training schedule into an already busy life. Together with a coach, I mapped out the training runs I needed to do and looked at my destinations to try to make them match up. It was great fun. As I circled the world, I found myself running in the parks of Sydney, along the beach in Barcelona, and through the bush at our Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in South Africa.
Luckily, my children Holly and Sam had also decided to run the race with a group of friends, so we often trained together on our family breaks.
Occasionally things don’t go according to plan. That same year, all three of us tried to kite-surf across the English Channel, but the weather prevented our attempt. In January, a ski accident caused me to snap an Achilles tendon, and I was unable to run, ski or kite-surf for more than six months. As a way of motivating myself to keep fit, I threw myself into training for the swim leg of the London Triathlon.
At Virgin, I am famous for searching out challenges that will help us to push ourselves harder—and that includes physically. But making small changes can be even more helpful in the long run. Next time you settle down on a Sunday morning to answer that mountain of e-mail, think about whether you might be better off first going for a run, swim or bike ride, to refresh the body and the mind.