Olympian Leon Taylor: Combating Business Stress With Regular Physical Movement

Leon Taylor knows about dealing with stress. After diving in three Olympic Games for Great Britain, peaking with a silver medal at Athens 2004, he’s reaped the rewards of pushing mind and body to extremes. Sports fans may now recognise his ever-excitable voice from Olympic diving commentary, while he’s developed careers as a coach and mentor, Tedx speaker, yoga teacher, author, and mental wellness advocate.

Leon’s great passion is using physical movement as a tool for beating psychological and physiological stress. As part of this, he’s teamed up with PLATF9RM members Bare Biology for their ‘Better In 5’ program. This is focused on getting into good physical movement habits, and reaping the rewards in all aspects of your life. He’s recently moved to Hove and we called him to chat about a business stress epidemic, and why we can all move our way to greater happiness...

Hey Leon. You work a lot with business figures. What’s the biggest problem you are encountering?

Across generations, there’s a growing concern about mental wellness. There’s many reasons but not dealing with stress effectively is causing lots of people to develop anxiety, depression and other more serious health problems. We need to create resourcefulness. To interact with and define stress in a healthy way.

Why is it important to “define” stress?

There was some research recently about the perception of stress. It was undertaken with 30,000 people over eight years – it found that if you perceive stress as harmful then you will get the harmful effect. Those who believed the stress is harmful to them had an increased 43% chance of premature death.  But the ones who reported the equal amount of stress but believed it wasn’t harmful, were in the lowest chances of premature death! So we really need to work on our beliefs and strategies around stress.

This is especially true for entrepreneurs and freelancers, where overwork and business stress can feel like the norm?

All photos by Mickey F Photography

Entrepreneurs can often be the worst!  They’ll be thinking, ‘If i don’t start this business, no-one will’ and run themselves into a hole. Here’s an interesting fact: if you have less than five hours sleep for a week, your performance would drop to the level as if you’ve had 48 hours of no sleep!  But you won’t know because you’ve just been ploughing on. Obviously we have occasional periods of intense business or things happening outside of our control – a new child, for instance – but choosing to live like this on a regular basis is crazy and actually negates your business effectiveness. Without a foundation of wellness, high performance can’t exist.

You’re absolutely passionate about using movement to beat stress and anxiety...

Yes, the short term effects of moving are more obvious – it gets you out of that fug, gets you moving and gives you those feel-good endorphins. But long-term it changes the shape of the hippocampus in your brain, where thought and function occur. By exercising, you’re actually improving the structure of your brain. It’s hugely powerful.

What would you say to the working mum or dad who says that they can’t find time to exercise?

Exercise and movement are different. People think it’s got to be going to the gym, or a run, and it’s got to be 45 minutes. But five minutes of burpees is actually much harder than 45 minutes of running. If you can’t do burpees, do squats. If you can’t do five minutes, do two. It’s about starting small and making the habits sticky.

And everyone has different things that work for them?

Absolutely. Some people might need quiet time: two minutes of mediation in the morning, perhaps. It’s often discovering what you can do. They might not be able to go to the gym so try walking into work rather than getting the bus. It could be cycling to see your mum. It could be dancing, or raving! There’s an epidemic of business people saying they’re too busy to look after their wellness. It’s about making positive habits so easy they can’t fail.

How did you deal with the stress and anxiety of an Olympic dive?

That’s an extreme example of anxiety and pressure and we did visualization hundreds of times. You visualize yourself smiling and relaxing on the stage, plus the sights, smells, crowds and everything else, so when the event happens it’s not unfamiliar. You still have to deliver but other factors aren’t going to affect you at the time.

It’s about trying to stay calm, and ensuring your body doesn’t fall into a negative anxietal state. When this happens, your body hijacks your nervous system and you go into fight-or-flight mode. If that happens you’re in serious trouble, so you need to work beforehand to  ensure your body doesn’t enter that state.

This is especially relevant to business people doing presentations or pitches. What can they do to stay in a positive mental state?

Absolutely. So it’s about making sure you’re breathing deeply before stepping up to make the presentation. You’re smiling and nodding. You’re telling yourself that it’s okay; that these people are just humans. Whatever you need to do, so when you go into the performance setting you can get out of your way and let it happen.

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And being fit through regular physical movement will help you achieve this?

Yes.

Finally, what’s happening with your Bare Biology collaboration?

The founder of Bare Biology, Melanie Lawson, reached out to me last year. She’d had some personal issues and could feel her physical and mental wellness slipping the wrong way. She saw my Ted x talk on finding your movement and asked me to help, so we documented the process. It’s all about habit changes and making these changes sticky. Mel got into running and she’s now running the Brighton half marathon! She’s a mother-of-three, business owner, never done a long-distance run, so I think it’s a powerful story. We’ll be reflecting on all of this at our event, and I’ll tell some stories from my own career. I can’t wait!

Movement For Mental Focus’ will be taking place on 27th February, at PLATF9RM Tower Point RSVP here. Check out Leon’s website here.