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Professional Opinion

Exercise is key to K12 leadership success

Why school leaders should get away from the desk and be active
Lisa Gonzales is president of the Association of California School Administrators and an assistant superintendent of educational services in Dublin USD.
Lisa Gonzales is president of the Association of California School Administrators and an assistant superintendent of educational services in Dublin USD.

Can exercise boost our effectiveness as leaders? Science supports the importance of exercise, especially for leaders. Proof abounds on the internet and in magazines. Have you made the connection yet? If not, here are a few reasons you should.

It’s energy-inducing

Exercise can improve energy by strengthening circulation and the heart muscle, both of which increase energy levels. The University of Georgia’s review of more than 65 studies on exercise notes that more exercise equals more energy and less fatigue, regardless of whether you get out in the fresh air to walk around campus or hit the trails for a run after work.

“Exercise provides me a belief in myself to push through hurdles,” says Eusebio Martinez, vice principal at Georgine Brown Dual Immersion Magnet School in Paso Robles USD. “After exercise, I feel energized and empowered, and that perseverance helps me deal with the challenges of the day.”

It increases clarity and creativity

When exercise begins, the heart rate increases and the brain processes the change as “stress.” To combat this stress, the body releases a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that acts like a reset switch to memory neurons.

Translation? It helps us think more clearly and brings on a sense of relaxation because endorphins are released in the brain.

During physical activity, we are relaxed and at ease, which gets those creative juices flowing.

“Exercise clears my mind and renews my spirit,” says Victor Rodrigues, principal of Sylmar Charter High School in Los Angeles USD. ”And I can often come up with great solutions to problems I encounter at work. On those days I don’t exercise, I feel sluggish and unproductive.”

It helps destress

Exercise doesn’t just help us stay healthy. In leadership roles, the stress that comes from the very nature of our work often cannot be avoided, but the way we process stress can certainly be reduced by regular exercise, including running, walking, yoga and more.

“I work out at least twice a week at a barre studio and ride my spin bike at home another three,” says Nikki Dennis, principal at Will Rogers College Junior and Senior High in Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma. “While I still fret about my school, staff, students and community, my physical and mental strength are better, and so is my attitude.”

Anne Ginnold, professional development trainer at the Orange County Department of Education, prioritizes weekly time for her workouts.

“Our central nervous system needs activities that will increase oxygen in the blood and help manage stress,” she says. “We must make time for conditioning to keep ourselves physically and mentally strong.”

It’s contagious

As leaders, we are often in positions of influence, with followers who look to us as an example. Exercise plays into this when we engage others in the physical activities we undertake.

Silicon Valley CTE Superintendent Alyssa Lynch, a marathon runner, knows this all too well.

“In our district, we have running and walking teams,” she says. “We enter community fun runs as a group, holding each other accountable. Our group has grown as more want to be part of healthy practices and team-building."

It may improve your reputation

According to the Journal of Managerial Psychology, leaders who exercise regularly have higher leadership skills. From stamina to mental clarity to confidence to relatability, the leaders who regularly hit the gym, the slopes, the trails and anything in between were rated higher than their non-fitness-minded colleagues.

If the perception of effectiveness is higher in those who regularly exercise, what are you waiting for?


Lisa Gonzales is president of the Association of California School Administrators and an assistant superintendent of educational services in Dublin USD.