The workplace favors athletes, so do your best to be one

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Here’s some career advice. Stop obsessing about how smart you are. Instead, get some exercise and you’ll perform better at work — athletes do better in the workplace than non-athletes. Even off the field. This advice is true in a wide range of scenarios — across age groups, job descriptions, and types of exercise.

Athletes make more money because their self-confidence and competitive nature makes them choose jobs that pay more money, says James Shulman, author of The Game of Life: College Sport and Educational Values. “This happens from every group of athletes from the liberal arts colleges to big-time sports. It is not affected or skewed by a few people winning million-dollar NFL contracts or anything like that.”

Another reason athletes make more money is that they fit in better in today’s workplace, which values emotional intelligence over academic intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the “soft skills” that enable smooth running interpersonal relationships at work — such as the ability to read peoples’ nonverbal cues and the ability to manage oneself within a team.

These skills are not taught in a classroom; however, someone with athletic experience is likely to have picked them up. “Sports teach workplace values like teamwork, shared commitment, decision-making under pressure, and leadership,” says Jennifer Crispen , a professor at Sweet Briar College who teaches a course in the history of culture of women’s sport.

Also, playing sports helps people succeed because it teaches skills such as, “time management, mental toughness, and focus,” says David Czesniuk, manager at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

This is especially true for women. Crispen told me, “Eighty-one percent of women executives played organized team sports growing up.” These women attribute their success, in a part, to the fact that they learned the values that playing these sports teaches.

Mariah Titlow, a biologist, has been involved in sports all her life. “Sports have given me better focus and discipline,” she says. “I’ve done gymnastics, swimming, dance, field hockey, track. Sports increased my confidence, made me a happier person, and taught me how to get through something tough.”

Elite colleges are aware of this connection, which explains why it is easier to get into the Ivy League if you are an athlete. And employers know that athletes have an advantage in the workplace, so hiring managers like to see candidates with athletic experience.

For athletes, this is great news. Non-athletes should stop complaining about the unfair advantage, and instead, take steps to confer some of the advantages of being an athlete on themselves. Here are some ideas for getting started:

If you’re in school, join a team and approach it with dedication, because that’s an integral part of your education. “Your body and your brain are connected,” says Titlow, “so the benefits of sports spill over into other parts of life.” The career benefits of being an athlete are not necessarily related to talent, they have to do with focus and commitment. So get some.

If you are out of school, there are still opportunities to join teams that cater to adult beginners. But if you can’t image doing that, at least go to the gym. It’s no coincidence two thirds of female business executives and 75 percent of all chief executives, exercise regularly, Crispen said. While you do not gain team-oriented benefits from individual exercise, you do cultivate business essentials such as self-discipline, goal setting, and self-confidence.

In fact exercise in the morning notably improves your workplace performance that very day, according to research from Leeds Metropolitan University.

Still feeling like a couch potato? That couch time is costing you money: The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that good-looking people make 14 percent more than ugly people. Part of this discrepancy is because, `’The perfect leader is someone who is able to control other peoples’ perceptions of him. Everyone has a secret — a weakness or a raw nerve they don’t want to be touched. For a person who is overweight, the secret is out.” says executive recruiter Mark Jaffe.

Before you hem and haw about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, just go to the gym. You know good-looking when you see it, and you know ugly when you see it, and a body that’s been exposed to regular exercise at the gym is probably not ugly. You might not get that whole 14 percent of extra pay, but your career is going to benefit one way or another if you exercise regularly.

19 replies
  1. Diana
    Diana says:

    I really enjoyed this column! I played team sports in my pre-teens, but stopped exercising altogether in high school and college. I have recently started an exercise program not to fit into “skinny jeans” but to build my self-confidence, energy, and self-image… all traits that would benefit me in my current job search!

    While I don’t think (most!) employers are necessarily “prejudiced” against overweight candidates (we’re not a legally protected class, are we?), I do believe that employers favor fit candidates.

    It makes so much sense… When you see a fit person, you assume that in order to achieve and maintain themselves, they must be self-motivating, confident people who can achieve goals, etc., etc. On the other hand, when you see a person who has “let themselves go”, you might assume that they are lazy, and the lack drive and self-discipline to achieve goals.

    Of course, I’m not saying that these prejudices are correct at all. I know some very confident overweight people and some fit people with horrible self-esteem. I will say, though, that people who exercise regularly (I’ve started noticing this in myself) tend to carry themselves in a different way that couch-potatos. They interact with people better and are more likely to positively contribute to a group situation. In my experience, and in observation of others, people who start exercising again tend to be happier, more optimistic, and less prone to depression and negativity.

    Keep up the good work; I always enjoy reading what you have to say!

    Now… where are my running shoes?!

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Diana, great comment! I want everyone to know that all Diana’s points are supported by research. Really, it’s all true.

    Most people know this intuitively, I think. But few are ready to put it into words in such a cut-and-dried way as Diana.


  3. Marie
    Marie says:

    I must say I was disappointed with the article. Perhaps you and Diana were lucky enough to have a modicum of physical coordination and ability, and you should be grateful for that. But to assume that everyone has that kind of God-given gift is unkind to those of us who were in childhood, and will always be, the type that was last-picked for (fill-in-the-blank)ball, the one who couldn’t run fast, or throw accurately, or make contact between long implement and ball, or figure out the breathing patterns to swim smoothly, no matter how many hours he/she practiced and tried.

    Some of us JUST don’t have it, which makes those “just do it” ads that much more painful to watch. And now you’re saying I have to be an athlete to maximize my chances of career success? Despite my lack of athletic ability, I still managed to graduate 2nd in my class and was elected VP of student government and even made second place in the Homecoming Queen contest (“lady-in-waiting” – yes, it’s a goofy title, but it represented the affection and respect of my classmates). So I didn’t have to be an athlete to be considered a leader in my class. I just had to be a leader. But I’m self-conscious about my physical abilities to the point where I refuse to work out at the gym in my office, because I’m embarrassed to do so in front of my colleagues. Does that make me less worthy of the management position I hold?

    Consider yourself LUCKY you can run and jump and throw. But don’t push us non-athletes against the wall for the sake of a column. That would make you no better than the bullies in middle school.

  4. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    To Marie … the article does not say that no exceptions exist, just that in general people who look after their physical well being tend to do better in their careers.

    And the article doesn’t say that you need to exercise in a public, group situation to obtain the benefits. While team sports have benefits, the article points out that so does just staying in shape. One can do this by walking regularly, using exercise videos, employing exercise equipment at home, etc.
    Take care…

  5. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Hi, Marie.
    First of all, let me be clear that unless you are in amazing shape, don’t work out at an office gym. If you are trying to manage your image at work at all, being out of shape at the gym will not help.

    But being out of shape at the gym outside of work is fine. I recommend Curves for you. It’s a national chain of gyms that caters to women who are not comfortable going to a gym.

    But look, don’t hide behind a lack of coordination. The benefits of getting exercise are independent of talent.

    You are perfectly capable of going to the gym and walking on a treadmill and learning to lift weights. Go do that now, really.

    I am so happy to be able to use the example of my friend, who is wheel-chair bound. He just competed in a national horseback riding competition for athletes with disabilities. He writes emails about the excitement of athletic competition with the same excitement, the same adjectives, that an Olympic athlete would.

    The thrill of using your body to the best of your abilities is open to every single person.

  6. Diana
    Diana says:

    Marie, I must agree with Wendy and Penelope on this. The point of the article was to point out trends and statistics, not to condemn you to a failed career. But the bottom line is that *anyone* who is confident, comfortable in groups, and self-disciplined will do well in their careers. It just so happens that most people achieve these things through exercise and especially through team sports.

    I, too, was at the top of my class in HS. I found Penelope’s 3rd paragraph very compelling. They don’t teach you those things in AP Calculus! When I was talking to my friend about this concept, he nodded and said that it is easier for athletes to get into Ivy League schools than non-athletes. I’m not sure if this is accurate, but it makes a measure of sense.

    I was not a super-popular athlete in gradeschool. I was average. I didn’t play any sports for my school. When I was young, I played soccer just for fun. I wasn’t very good, but it didn’t matter. I was playing a game with my friends, and that’s all that mattered.

    After that, I took to solitary early-morning jogs around a public golf course near my house. The best thing about early-morning runs is that no one’s watching! You can be awkward and out of breath, but no one’s there staring at you on a treadmill.

    Now that I’m almost to the point of obesity, I’m even less likely to exercise in public! There is a small gym at my apt complex that I go use the elliptical trainer at early in the morning when no one else is there. I do yoga and pilates in my living room. No judging eyes there, except my cat who looks at me a little funny!

  7. Reginleif
    Reginleif says:

    Thank you for confirming my suspicions that I need to get out of the corporate world, where intelligence and hard work are far less valued than the “right” looks, the “right” clothes, the “right” vehicle, and the ability to schmooze people. No wonder so many companies go into the toilet.

    “You know good-looking when you see it, and you know ugly when you see it, and a body that’s been exposed to regular exercise at the gym is probably not ugly.”

    Uh-huh. And those of us who have unfashionably flabby bodies must, perforce, be “ugly,” regardless of what our significant others say.

    Thanks, honey. Let me guess, you’re yet another phony-baloney suit, or maybe an HR bimbo, who looks down on anyone who isn’t toned, tan, extraverted, and nattily tailored.

    Yours is one blog I won’t be reading for career advice. I’d like to get as far away from people of your mindset as possible.

  8. Julie
    Julie says:

    Interestingly enough, I wasn’t terribly offended by this post. I have never been pre-disposed to being a tiny woman, and I probably never will be. Luckily for me I have landed a great job, and have a personality and disarming nature that has made my less-than-culturally-acceptable physique more of a non-issue. The truth is, the author is simply trying to give us all a leg-up in the corporate world. She isn’t giving a personal evaluation of overweight or non-athletic types, but is simply pointing out the benefits of keeping in shape in regards to your career search.

    In short, I don’t think Penelope is responsible for the situation, but that she is trying to shed light on it and promote awareness. I think it’s sad that “more attractive” people get hired more often. Sad or not, it’s still a reality we all have to face.

    Good luck to everyone still looking!

  9. Jay
    Jay says:

    Thank you for the column, I really enjoyed it. I am going to recommend a website, it’s:
    The website helps people find: Local sports, Players who want to play the same game and it helps to organize group games with an on-line event planning tool.

  10. Mneiae
    Mneiae says:

    I think that this article has some interesting points. I’m a business student at a top 20 school and a “smart” kid with a huge list of accomplishments. I look great on paper. Because sexual harassment intimidates me, I resolved to wear form-obscuring clothing in the workplace, so that the focus would be on my performance and my ability, not anything else. Now this article is making me rethink that decision.

    I have the kind of body that attracts whistles and stops males in their tracks whenever I wear something that shows it. And attractive people indubitably make more, but I thought that I’d readily pay the premium of loss wages and slower promotions to avoid being sexually harassed in the workplace. I deliberately wear oversized clothing to fade into the background as just another fat kid because I hate the attention that wearing form fitting clothing attracts and I like men to speak to my face, not other parts of my body. And that quote from Mark Jaffe says it all. Everybody has a weakness, but overweight people have it on the surface. I thought that by pretending to be fatter than I am, I could have an obvious weakness that really doesn’t exist. Anybody attacking me would be dealing with something that isn’t a vulnerability.

    Reading this article, though, makes me wonder if I’m cheating myself out of something that is my due or stunting my potential by not capitalizing on what I could get by showing myself off a little. I believe that I have ability, but combining that with my body could get me better opportunities.

    Also, I’d like to toss in an observation, just from being a business kid. A lot of my classmates are extremely competitive, to an unhealthy extent. Corporate espionage, surreptitious backstabbing, and other delightful things to be found in the business world are already evident in business school. I’m a sweet girl who likes rainbows, flowers, and puppies. However, I’m toughening up, because the only alternative would be to get out of the game.

  11. I hate this place
    I hate this place says:

    “Looks” dont last forever. But a mind does. This higly offensive article only helps to reinforce that society is unequal. What if you are disabled and cant “have the body”? Its amazing how shallow the west is.

  12. Obi Okere
    Obi Okere says:

    This is my first time to this blog. I liked this post. You are very right. According to a study published in the journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics in 2008, University of Georgia researchers found that people who live a sedentary lifestyle could increase their energy by 20% while decreasing fatigue by as much as 65% by simply participating in regular, low-intensity exercise. It’s simply better to be an athlete.

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    oh yes and if you are an “athlete” in organized sports,  you get used to sexual harassment more easily , this way you are able to use sex to climb higher in your job now.. great advice!

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