Fighting fit: Why you need to be in top shape to be a leader

People are surprised I lead a team of over 700 people and find time to stay in shape. For me, one isn’t possible without the other. And my advice to you is to take your physical wellbeing seriously if you want to have impact over the long haul.

I believed for a long time that my impact at work was simply the product of the quantity of time by the quality of how I used it. Quantity just means hours spent. Quality means what I spend those hours doing, that is, how effectively I use my time.  I’ve never met a successful person who doesn’t work hard and use their time effectively. And for you that means: work hard and smart, and you’ll have the basic ingredients for success.

But it turns out for me that this basic equation doesn’t work for the long haul. There are two other ingredients for me: physical and mental condition. If my physical condition is great — I am fighting fit— then I’m alert, less stressed, positive, less prone to illness, confident, balanced, and slower to burn out. Being mentally in top shape is critical too, particularly making sure I find meaning in what I’m doing, and getting the balance right between family and work time (a topic for another time). So, these days I’d argue that my impact at work is something like: quantity times quality times physical condition times mental condition (with some constants that I don’t yet understand). In this post, I’m going to tell you why you should stay fighting  fit too.

This is an entirely non-technical post from a primarily technical person. Take it with a grain of salt, and see your doctor before you take any of my advice.

Top 10 Tips for being Fighting Fit ™

Let me just cut to the chase, and tell you the top ten things that you can use to be fighting fit:

  1. Don’t eat wheat. Better still, don’t eat grains
  2. Avoid high sugar foods. If it has more than 10g of sugar per 100g of product, don’t eat it
  3. Drink lots of water. Aim for at least 96oz or 3 litres per day
  4. Get a decent night’s sleep. It feels to me like 8+ hours is the sweet spot
  5. Have a big breakfast
  6. Have a small dinner
  7. Work the big muscles with resistance training three times per week
  8. Stretch
  9. Do cardiovascular exercise
  10. Ignore the above nine items for just one day each week (and be perfect the other six)

That’s in priority order. The top six are all about nourishment, the next three are about fitness, and the last one is a rule that governs how to apply the others.

To be fighting fit, it’s 70% nutrition and 30% exercise. I’ve worked incredibly hard at exercise and weighed 15 pounds more than I do today. These days, I’m pretty much at my high school weight, stronger than I’ve ever been, and the difference is nutrition (and perhaps more focus on strength or resistance training).


Do you want to be 15 pounds lighter? Follow rule #1 and you’ll be well on your way. Don’t eat grains because they’re full of carbohydrates, and that causes insulin to spike, and the body to enthusiastically store carbohydrates as body fat. Same with high sugar foods like sodas. Instead, eat more protein, and healthy fats. I’m big on egg whites, nuts, avocado, meats, and so on. Try a salad for lunch, with plenty of chicken, turkey, or tuna.

Fats don’t make you fat. Fats are just an intense source of energy, and you need to avoid eating too much. Eat nuts, avocado, egg yolks, and other healthy fats in moderation. Carbohydrates are the bad news problem.

Drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated, and your metabolism running efficiently. Everything I read says drinking lots of water is a good idea.

I eat a massive breakfast, and try and go easy at dinner (though I struggle to do that effectively). The rationale is that in the morning, I need energy to get through the day. In the evening, I’m going to bed, so there’s no sense in consuming a ton of calories. Try and tilt your plan in that direction.

If that’s all too hard, follow rule#1: don’t eat wheat. You’ll get somewhere, trust me.


Exercising is my passion. I hit the gym four or five days a week, run a couple of times per week, do yoga once a week, and add in some exercise at home (like mountain biking, boxing, jump rope, or agility work) on the weekends. It just plain makes me feel great, lowers my stress, and gives me space and time to think about ideas and problems that are important in life and work.

How do I fit all that in? Pretty simply, really: I just make it my number one priority. When I was at Microsoft, my motto was “I’m not canceling the gym for anyone except Bill Gates”. And I stuck to it and still do. My rationale is that the company needs me to be effective for the long haul, and this is what makes me effective. I’m happy to be at work any time I’m not in the gym.

I’ve learnt that to be fighting fit, you need to do more strength training and less cardiovascular exercise. The nice thing about strength training is you burn some calories while you’re in the gym, and then a lot more afterwards: your body is busy repairing and growing the muscles you’ve worked. Most cardio burns more per minute in the gym than strength training while you’re doing it, but then the burn stops afterwards. Focus on your big muscles: leg and butt, chest, core, and muscles that help you maintain a reasonable posture (given you likely sit around a lot in front of computers). Working those muscles burns more calories than the ones you see in the mirror (you can skip the biceps). Get a personal trainer, ask them to put together a strength training routine, and do it 2 or 3 times per week. The results will amaze you.

It turns out that exercising hard requires maintenance. Maintenance for me is stretching, and I use yoga as the key way to do that. Yoga is seriously hard work: it requires core strength, balance, and flexibility. I’m not good at it, but it’s helping me be flexible and loose, and that helps me stay fighting fit.

I like cardio, I love going for a run (that’s something I’ve been doing regularly since 1995). I also love riding my bike. So, I get out and do some. But strength training is the key: if you don’t have much time, skip the cardio and go do some strength training.


I try hard to be good for six days in every seven. I have no trouble doing that with exercise. But with food it’s harder. One day a week, I let loose. I do whatever I want, and that gives me willpower for the rest of the week.

This is really important for you: cheat every day and you will get nowhere. If you want to be fighting fit, be disciplined six days out of seven.

Final Thoughts

Personal training is a great investment. I’d recommend to you that you get a personal trainer: it makes strength training safe and challenging, and helps you learn about how to make yourself fighting fit. Getting some nutritional advice from a nutritionist is a great idea too; diets are the worst thing in the world, it’s far smarter to eat to a plan and enjoy the results.

So that’s my Fighting Fit plan to make you an effective leader for the long haul. Remember the basics: don’t eat wheat, avoid high sugar foods, get in some strength training 2 or 3 times per week, and cheat once per week. You will be a fighting fit machine in no time (and I look forward to hearing about your results).

Please don’t blindly copy my plan. Please talk to your doctor, fitness professional, or nutritionist. And remember that I am a computer scientist, so you should Read My Disclaimer.

An Afterword of Thanks

My trainer is David Macchi in the eBay gym. Dave’s awesome: he’s taught me hundreds of exercises, and got me working on muscles that help posture and keep me balanced. He’s also good on the nutrition tips, and pushes me that little bit harder than I’d push myself. We’ve also partnered together on programs to help get our technology team at eBay more active, and help charity at the same time. I’m working hard to spread the fighting fit message.

Cheat day, and focusing harder on nutrition, is a strategy I learnt by participating in a “12 week challenge” with the I Choose Awesome guys in Inverloch, Australia. Great guys, and I owe them a bunch of thanks for helping me explore more about being fighting fit. They also taught me some sayings:  “Nothing tastes as good as lean feels” and “Pain is just weakness leaving the body”. You might need those sayings.

My trainer when I lived in Redmond, Washington, and worked at Microsoft, was Dirk Huebner. Dirk got me excited about agility drills, Fartlek training, and medicine balls. Another great guy to know.

27 thoughts on “Fighting fit: Why you need to be in top shape to be a leader

  1. Evan Bradley (@zenflyfishing)

    Great article Hugh,solid regimen, and you are living proof of your program. The only thing I would add, is go surfing, only a handful of sports can infuse your soul with this level of awe. It also provides great joy of speed and movement; as well getting in touch with not being the top of the food chain (though there are only 200+ Great Whites in the Bay Area,; which I find to be one the most humbling aspects of life that we don’t usually encounter.

  2. Ardent Logophile

    Love this post!!! But, can’t agree with “Don’t eat wheat. Better still, don’t eat grains”. How about “Don’t eat grains on the day you cannot exercise!”?

  3. Hugh E. Williams Post author

    @ardent: Thanks! Appreciate it.

    I’m still sticking with the recommendation: skip the grains, and it turns out great. Make exceptions, and it won’t turn out well. Controversial perhaps, but it’s worked for me, my family, and several friends and colleagues.

    Or just exercise 6 days per week, and we’ll agree 😉

  4. Hugh E. Williams Post author

    @evan: great sport. Great for the core, legs, and you get your cardio at the same time too. Good suggestion.

  5. Bhaven Avalani

    Love this post. Grains is a tough thing to give up, specially if you are a vegetarian. Couple of additional thoughts. Take part in some sports. Sports, even at recreational level, has immense benefits for both mind and body. Exercise can get boring. But sports never gets boring. Walk and Breathe right. An hour of walking every other day with thoughtful breathing while walking can do wonders.

  6. itman1975

    I would not advise against eating any specific food (unless it breaks the daily balance of fat/protein/carbohydrates), but instead to focus on the total number of calories consumed/spent. I ate grains and chocolates and nevertheless lost 30 lbs. Too many chocolates, I admit though, is not a good strategy to lower cholesterol levels 🙂

  7. zjffdu

    It’s very difficult for Chinese people “Don’t eat wheat. Better still, don’t eat grains” 🙂

  8. Chris Kasten

    It’s great to see a posting about such an important subject that affects all aspects of your life in and outside of work. When I first met Hugh and saw how fit he was it really hit me that if this guy that runs such a large organization can find time to exercise and be fit I sure as heck have no excuses. It has helped me a couple of times to get back on track when I have fallen off the exercise wagon due to reverting back to my workaholic tendencies.

    As far as the controversy over wheat/grains, my position is try it and see. My family went wheat/gluten free 18 months ago due to all four of my kids being diagnosed Celiac (life has its challenges 🙂 ). At first we thought that it really sucked to deal with the change, but after doing it our kids did so much better, as well as myself and my wife, who are not Celiac, have noticed positive effects as well. You actually find you cut out almost all processed foods this way, which you will find has good benefits as well. Also, it forces you to cook more at home and more healthily, which at first may seem like a pain, but once you get in the groove and you feel the benefits you are glad you did it. We still eat Quinoa and some rice, but in moderation. Besides the obvious negatives of Celiac, all-in-all the change has been for the positive, so a little silver lining to the whole thing.

    Keep up the blog and the motivation for others to get on the wagon!

  9. Hugh E. Williams Post author

    @zfffjdu: I’m not sure it’s harder for any one background. it’s hard for most folks to give up grains. For example, just about every “western” meal in the US is full of grains: breakfast cereals, breads, bagels, rice, pasta, pizza dough, …

  10. Aditya

    Great article!! I know that the “don’t eat grains…” statement has received the most number of feed-backs, so I figured that I should add my two cents here. I would agree if you meant that we should not eat refined products made from grain, like white bread/pasta etc. However, if you leave the grain in its natural form and have more whole grain, barley, oats, brown rice, then I don’t see the harm here, in fact, they help you add muscle and re-supply the crucial glycogen reserves in muscles immediately after a good weight-training session.I know that most body-builders swear by brown rice and oats. However, controlling your portions even with whole grain diet is important! I learned it the hard way! 🙂

  11. Hugh E. Williams Post author

    @bhupendra: that’s pretty much it (though it’s worth reading @chris kasten’s comment too). If you sit down and decide your protein:carb:fat ratios, and figure out how many calories you should eat in a day, you’ll find you easily blow through the carb limit by eating wheat-based products. The easy thing to do (rather than worry too much about ratios, and calorie limits) is to just skip the grains…

    @itman1975: that’s pretty much my argument against your point. It’s too complicated to track ratios, and limits. It’s easier for most folks to just quit the grains, and you’ll be on a reasonable track. Moreover, like @chris says, there’s the benefit of having to cook real food from real ingredients, and feeling better from just not eating grains…

  12. Hugh E. Williams Post author

    @chris kasten: thanks for the comment, and I am glad I am keeping you motivated in my own little way…

    Sad to hear about the family, but it’s great there’s a silver lining to changing the diet. My family is much the same: when you take out the grains, you take out the processed junk, and you get back to eating real food that you’ve made yourself. While my wife does most of the weekday cooking (except breakfast! I always make that), and it’s tough for her to juggle, we’re very much in the routine too and loving it… and I really enjoy the cooking I get a chance to do on the weekends!

  13. itman1975


    Unfortunately. It’s not easier. One should quit eating calorie-reach foods. If grains account for 200-300ccal/day, who cares? The problem is not just grain, it is foods like pizza, which are calorie dense. You eat a couple of medium slices and consume 1000 ccals, already a half of what you need to eat per day. Anyways, I am afraid the fitness problem does not have an easy solution. 🙂

  14. Kallum Fidoe

    Thanks for the shout out Hugh…

    Awesome post, the more people we can educate about your top 10 the better. Like you said nutrition is such a massive part of being fighting fit. Ultimately we control what goes in our mouths but the irony is, what we put in ends up controlling us. Physically and mentally.

    Keep leading by example and inspire the uninspired.

    Train Hard, Fight easy, and Always Choose Awesome


  15. Kallum Fidoe

    Just read the comments…

    The ‘don’t eat grains’ is something I am constantly challenged on as well working within the health and fitness industry. I have found if you reword it Hugh to ‘avoid grains’ people tend to respond better to it. We are not saying NEVER consume grains again however they should be kept to a minimum I believe for optimal health.

    Nutrition is such a massive topic and one plan does not fit all. However being a competitive Body Builder myself I have had Awesome results with the ‘Hunter Gatherer’ lifestyle and keeping grains for ‘cheat day’ or ‘refeed day’ only. The ‘refeed day’ actually replenishes muscle glycogen stores and allows for muscle growth and hormonal balancing.

    For the average punter who is looking to maintain a healthy weight with good diet and a moderate amount of exercise you can’t really go past Hughs’ recommendations. Top shelf mate

  16. getteched

    Hey thanks for this great entry. I am a software developer who started gyming this year great to read about your suggestions 🙂

  17. Subra Kumaraswamy

    Great post Hugh! It was no surprise you were on the top of the list in the Turkey challenge kicking most of butts 😉 Also got a preview of your regimen during the Santa Cruz Leadership camp and was inspired to learn that a leader of large org can maintain a “fighting fit” fitness regimen while meeting the demands of a giant ecommerce startup!
    I am big fan of complex carbo as I rely on that for long distance running. I concur that “unsupervised” carbo diet can add extra pounds but long distance runners routinely rely on this fuel. One other point I want to make is to eat at least 20gm of protein right after any work out within the first hour. This will help accelerate the muscle recovery. Also I like to incorporate at least one “interval training” per week as it gives the most bang for the buck under time constraints. Also anti-inflammatory food such as ginger, tart cherry juice, green tea, blueberry can help with muscle recovery. Best wishes to all to attain and sustain “fighting fit”!

  18. sri g

    Hugh – Your original post reads “Take it with a grain of salt, and see your doctor before you take any of my advice” – Doesn’t your rule#1 say avoid grains 🙂 Just Kidding – Well written post.

    For all the asians there addicted to grains – my wife switched our diet to cracked wheat (daliya in hindi) – it had an instant effect on our nutrition and health. 1/4 cup of serving size contains – 5g of protein (10%), 29gm carb (25%) 5g of fiber and 10% of iron
    This switch has been more pleasant to the mouth than quinoa!

  19. DJ

    An inspiring post! Yes, The first time I met you, I realized how fit and well built you were/are. Perfect ‘X’ shape 🙂

    BTW, Any tips for vegetarians or the experience of any of your vegetarian fitness enthusiasts on how to tackle or what to replace when they go by “avoid grains (whether oat, quinoa, rice, pulses or wheat?) Because, that’s one of the major source of protein, fiber and carbs for vegetarians.

    Also your rules reconfirms the saying of “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a beggar”

    DJ 🙂

  20. Pingback: The don’t eat grains mantra: why it makes sense | Hugh E. Williams

  21. just passing by

    Here’s the list from an MD who (as far as I can tell) has done massive amounts of research in the topic: There’s lots of overlap with your list — though some interesting differences and additions. (No relation, just a fan.) More names: Gary Taubes (vs. wheat / gluten / some carbs), Robert Lustig (vs. sugar).

  22. Hugh E. Williams Post author

    @dj, @subra, @sri g – thanks for the kind words, appreciate them!

    @dj – I am not sure how I’d modify my recommendation around grains if I was vegetarian. I’m guessing it’s still possible, but I imagine it’d be fairly challenging or nearly impractical. My suggestion would be to ask a nutritionist their views — I am sure there are some in the bay area who specialize in helping vegetarians get the right amount of protein, and help them think through keeping carbs and fats in balance.

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