Friday, June 9, 2023 Jun 9, 2023
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Why CEOs Neglect Their Health

It's a trend that needs to be reversed.
By Steve Jacob |

Matt Rose, chairman of Fort Worth’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, says years spent as a CEO should be measured in dog years.

“It starts with the travel,” he says. “Most CEOs are gone a lot, always up in the air. You’re going through time zones and you’re always on the run. You’re always entertaining and there is always a lot of food. You can’t always get healthier choices. I promise you this job is hard when you’re healthy. When you’re fatigued and dragging, it is doubly hard.”

Not long after Rose became CEO 13 years ago (he became chairman Jan. 1) two BNSF vice presidents—ages 53 and 49—died of ailments that could have been detected. At the company Christmas party, Rose announced that more than 100 managers would be eligible for annual executive physicals at Cooper Clinic. “Every year, I get one or two calls from people who have been detected with a condition they didn’t know about,” he says. “It’s saved people’s lives.”

Ross Craft, CEO of the oil and gas firm Approach Resources in Fort Worth, had to give up regular workouts five years ago because of work demands and creaky knees. His only stress reliever has been working on his Jack County ranch. He has resolved to resume his workout regime after a recent physical at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth.

“Being a CEO of a public company has a lot more pressure than 10 years ago,” he says. “With Sarbanes-Oxley, you are under a magnifying class. There is a lot to keep track of and it dictates your way of life.”

Dr. Tyler Cooper, CEO of Cooper Aerobics, which includes Cooper Clinic, says the greatest challenge CEOs face is having time to focus on themselves. 

“There are so many demands of the job and company that they put themselves on the back burner,” he says. “We work with [CEOs] to establish baseline health, and then identify and address their greatest health risks. We examine their work schedules and show them how they can easily achieve 30 minutes a day of exercise.”

The Cooper Clinic has worked with executives since it opened in North Dallas nearly 40 years ago. Cooper’s father, founder Kenneth Cooper, contends that there is just as much stress in a CEO’s job as there has always been. Tyler says what has changed is technology, which allows CEOs to have constant digital connection with their jobs and makes it difficult to unplug.

“I have patients that answer that thing all night,” he says. “They need to turn off the phone and avoid taking work home. We have CEOs who are in horrid shape because they have no work-life balance and are suffering because of it.

“There is an ‘Aha!’ moment when they recognize they will be better CEOs if they take care of themselves. Once the light bulb comes on, it stays on. The biggest reason they stick with [a healthier lifestyle] is because of the way they feel, flat out. They are more productive and emotionally stable.” 

Cooper Clinic has been involved in workplace wellness for more than 30 years. One of the key ingredients of whether the wellness program succeeds is whether the CEO and other top executives are committed to it.

“What we teach and preach is that a company cannot have a successful wellness program unless the CEO is invested corporately and personally,” Cooper says. “Healthcare is a personal responsibility. The medical system, corporations, and the government can only assist in that. It doesn’t take that much effort to be healthy. If you do that, quality of life and lower healthcare costs will follow.”

Cooper Clinic President and CEO Dr. Camron Nelson says the stress of being a CEO can heighten disease risk.

“We’re all subject to the same major causes of illness,” he says. “About 50 percent of us are going to succumb to cardiovascular disease. You want that to happen at age 85, not 45. People running corporations have the added health risk of being highly stressed. We do not totally understand why stress adds to disease risk, but a leadership role would compound risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

Nelson says he frequently talks to executives about sleep issues. C-suite execs don’t have good sleep patterns, he says, which leads to more stress. Stress also compounds inconsistent exercise and diet. It takes a concerted effort, especially for those in leadership roles, to be consistent.

Executives, Nelson says, are well-educated and highly motivated, though, and they respond well to advice packaged as a “game plan” to improve personal health. 

“The follow-through is not always robust,” he notes. 

=as=Some health-policy analysts predict that the comprehensive physicals administered by Cooper Clinic and other executive-health providers may become an historical relic when, in 2018, the federal government begins collecting a 40 percent excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” health plans that are common in the C-suite.

Nelson is skeptical whether that provision of the Affordable Care Act will survive. Regardless, he says, companies understand that key executives are valuable assets that need to be protected from ill-health.

Dr. Walter Gaman, a family physician who practices at Executive Medicine of Texas in Southlake and is the author of Stay Young: 10 Proven Steps to Ultimate Health, says about 90 percent of the patients at his Southlake practice are corporate executives.

A key source of stress for his CEO clients, he says, is isolation. “When the buck stops with you, you have to make the decisions,” he says. “That can be stressful and lonely. You can’t talk to a buddy, your brother-in-law, or your wife. These decisions are often complicated issues.” 

Gaman notes that a CEO’s lifestyle can conspire against a healthy existence. Business meals often consist of sumptuous high-fat, high-sodium entrees and generous amounts of alcohol. The diet can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Exercise also gets bumped down the list of priorities. Gaman encourages patients to put exercise sessions on their appointment calendars, giving them equal billing with a meeting with the chairman of the board. Corporate time demands also detract from family life, which can cause marital strains and additional stress. Gaman counsels CEOs to re-prioritize their lives.

“When someone is on their deathbed, no one says, ‘I wish I’d worked more,’” he says. “They understand importance of home life. It’s more important than work. I try to make them focus more on their marriage and spend time with their children. These guys are brilliant, but it is easy for them to lose focus. They have great motivation to improve their health.”

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s Rose rolls out of bed to lift weights and do aerobics at 4:40 every morning because it is the only time he can fit it into his schedule. 

“At the end of the day, this is a long race,” he says. “Executives need to have a balance and the health piece is important. Thirty years ago, nobody was talking about this. Twenty years ago, people were giving it lip service. Only in the last five to eight years have people embraced it.”