Research Blog

Women Athletes Win at the Office Too

Meg whitman ebay female executive played sports

Meg Whitman (right), one of the most recognizable female executives across the globe, credits athletics with helping hone her executive leadership. She played a number of sports including basketball, field hockey, swim and soccer. In addition, she attributes the rise in female executives in America to Title IX, the law that required equal money and time to be spent on men and women collegiate teams. A study released by Ernst & Young found a surprisingly high proportion of female C-suite business executives are former athletes.

The accounting firm Ernst & Young released a study earlier this week that found a high proportion of female executives played sports at some point in their lives and a majority believe teamwork honed through sports is essential to be a successful corporate executive. Ernst & Young conducted a global survey of 821 senior managers and executives from companies representing a broad spectrum of sectors. All companies had revenues in excess of US $250 million. About 40% of executives that responded were women, results for men were not published.  The survey was conducted in May 2013 and the results were released on June 23rd, 2013 to coincide with Title IX's 41st anniversary. The study has gained mainstream media attention, appearing on sites such as Forbes and Bloomberg. The figure below shows the high athletic participation of females in senior management positions.

Results from an Ernest & Young study of sport participation in 827 senior female executives.  Overall, 90% of the female executives surveyed reported participating in a sport at the primary, secondary or university level.

The numbers show a staggering proportion of female executives report athletics played a role in their lives. Overall, 90% of women executives sampled had played sports during primary, secondary or university education. 55% of female managers reported participating in sports while a working adult and 39% reported playing at the university level. The study does not specify whether or not college intramural sports and club sports are included under university level.  

Perhaps even more surprising is athletic participation by females with a C-suite office (Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, etc.). 96% of the surveyed women currently holding a C-suite position reported participating in sports in primary, secondary or university schools. The proportion of females surveyed holding a C-suite position who reported participating in sports as a working adult was 67%. 55% of females in the C-suite reported playing a sport at the university level.

The study examined why sports is so essential to holding an executive position in a large company. When asked if teams are the best way to address increasingly complex business problems, 90% of the executive women agreed.  72% of the women surveyed said that women who have engaged in or are currently participating in sports participate more effectively in a team setting.  And, 76% of the women executives surveyed believe that adopting behavior and techniques from athletics into the corporate environment can be an effective means of motivating teams within their companies.

Having been accustomed to holding studies up to the rigors of academia, this study has some flaws. Some criticism that can be levied on this study include a failure to include females who do not hold a senior management position for comparison. In addition, the study does not specify what kind of sampling they used. While a team atmosphere is stressed as the link between corporate leadership and athletics, the women sampled did not specify whether the sport they played was a "team" sport, such as basketball or soccer, or an individual sport, such as running or tennis. While individual sports are often within the confines of a team, this is not necessarily the case. For example, the woman who swims laps every morning by herself is participating in sport, but not on a team. Regardless, the numbers presented in the study are remarkably significant.  

This study found a strong correlation between female involvement in sports and executive corporate leadership. The study suggests that sports may be a way to hone key business skills like leadership and self-confidence. It also found that female corporate executives believe teams are important for competing in business and that sports are a good way to develop team skills. While the study does not directly support causation, others have pointed to the increase in proportion of female managers following the passage of Title IX as evidence that female participation in sports increases women's presence in senior management and positions of leadership throughout society.

COPD Linked to Abnormal Autonomic Control of Heart Rate During Exercise

heart rate COPD lungs

The severity of COPD is found to be correlated to likelihood of developing abnormal heart rate recovery and chronotropic incompetence during exercise.

A recent study found a strong link between the severity of a patient's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and the patient's likelihood of heart rate malfunction during exercise (Abnormal heart rate recovery and chronotropic incompetence on exercise in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 2013. Mansi Gupta, et al.). Heart rate malfunction during exercise was assessed through abnormal heart rate recovery and chronotropic incompetence. Abnormal heart rate recovery is a delayed drop in heart rate following exercise, defined as less than or equal to a 12 beat per minute decline in heart rate one minute after termination of exercise. Chronotropic incompetence means that the heart cannot reach a target heart rate during exercise.

In America, the leading cause of COPD is smoking; however, in countries with less stringent pollution regulation, pollution may be the leading cause of COPD.  The aforementioned study took place in India, where biomass fuel exposure causes the majority of COPD in women. To control for this, the study only used male smokers. COPD can come in two forms: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Symptoms of COPD include cough, fatigue, respiratory infection, dyspnea (shortness of breath) and wheezing.  The severity of COPD in this study was measured using the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) criteria and body mass index, air flow obstruction, dyspnoea and exercise capacity (BODE) index. The figure below depicts ill-formed alveoli characteristic of emphysema.

aveoli, emphysema, COPD, lungs

The proportion of patients with an abnormal heart rate recovery following exercise was much higher in patients with high levels of COPD as measured with the BODE index. The GOLD criteria demonstrated that as COPD severity increased, the proportion of patients with abnormal heart rate recovery increased. The figure below illustrates this data.

Proportion of patients with normal and abnormal heart rate recovery (HRR) following exercise across GOLD and BODE measures of COPD severity. BODE: body mass index, airflow obstruction, dyspnoea and exercise capacity; GOLD: Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease.

In addition, the proportion of COPD patients with chronotropic incompetence, an inability to reach a target heart rate during exercise, increased with COPD severity as defined by the GOLD criteria and BODE index. A strong level of correlation was observed. The figure below demonstrates that the study data suggests there is a link between COPD and chronotropic incompetence during exercise.

Proportion of patients with chronotropic incompetence (CI) across GOLD and BODE measures of COPD severity. BODE: body mass index, airflow obstruction, dyspnoea and exercise capacity; CI: chronotropic incompetence; GOLD: Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease.

Issues with the chronotropic function (chronotropic comes from the Greek word for time, chronos, and refers to heart rate controls) of the cardiac system generally suggest autonomic nervous system dysfunction. The autonomic nervous system accelerates heart rate with input from the sympathetic nervous system and depresses heart rate with the parasympathetic nervous system. The authors acknowledge that smoking may cause both autonomic nervous system dysfunction and COPD. However, COPD is a strong predictor of cardiovascular disease. Irregular breathing would affect regulation of the autonomic nervous system. For example, poor lung function from COPD would trigger the autonomic nervous system to increase the breathing rate, but the heart would not demand a similar increase in beat rate. Incongruity between heart rate and breathing rate autonomic nervous system innervation is not normally observed in healthy patients.

The best advice for COPD patients is to quit smoking and/or physically refrain from  smoky or polluted environments. It is important to realize that COPD not only affects the pulmonary system, but the cardiovascular system as well. By knocking out the pulmonary and cardiovascular system, COPD is a double-edged sword for those who enjoy exercise.

The Effects of Flying on Athletic Performance

airplane travel on athletic performance

Airplane travel effects athletic performance by perturbing the circadian rhythm and inducing a hypoxic effect.

The effects of airplane travel on athletic performance is relevant in a world that is increasingly reliant on flying for athletic competition. Insight from studies that seek to understand and alleviate flying's effect on athletic performance can be translated to enhance a business trip or make a vacation more pleasurable.  Athletic performance is an easy assay to measure how well the human body is functioning; most people who step off a plane are not athletes looking to perform at athletic competition. Rather, they want to feel their best as they take on a business conference or a full day of recreational skiing.  

A review of airplane travel and athletic performance was recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (Effect of airline travel on performance: a review of the literature, 2013. Leatherwood and Drago).

Airplane travel affects athletic performance in several respects. Changing time zones disrupts our circadian rhythm and reduced oxygen pressure in the cabin produces a hypoxic effect. In addition, sitting in a seat for several hours while on the airplane can produce lethargic limbs.

Circadian rhythm disruption is the foundation of the symptoms of jet lag. The body's master clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, resides in the hypothalamus within the brain. The suprachiasmatic nucleus keeps cells in the periphery in sync with the 24 hour day and night cycle. If environmental conditions (changing time zones) force this cycle to change abruptly, cells adapt at different rates. The body functions best once all the cells throughout the body are back in sync. The effect of perturbing the circadian rhythm on athletic performance is evident by a study on Australian National Netball Competition. Travel was categorized by local, north-south, east-west one time zone or east-west two time zones. Teams that crossed one time zone scored less points than those who did not travel across a time zone, but they scored more points than those that crossed two time zones. The figure below illustrates the results from this study.

MeanąSE for points difference (home margin—away margin) for each pair of games for four groups of travel: local travel, north–south travel, east–west travel across one time zone and east–west travel across two time zones.

A study of travel in Major League Baseball competition found that teams had a 61% chance of winning when their opponent crossed 3 time zones. The figure below demonstrates the stark differences in winning percentage based on time zones crossed.

Home team winning percentage according to relative circadian advantage/disadvantage. Advantage exists when home team is time zone adapted by 1, 2, or 3 days relative to visiting team (1-, 2-, or 3-h advantage). Disadvantage exists when the visiting team is time zone adapted by 1, 2, or 3 days relative to the home team (1-, 2-, or 3-h disadvantage).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the crossing time zone effect on athletic performance is the influence of the direction of travel. Eastward travel is the most detrimental to performance. This is probably because eastward travel results in a shorter day. Without any environmental cues, the human body adapts a 25-26 hour circadian rhythm. The body is better suited for adapting to a longer day, which results from westward travel, then a shorter day, which results from eastward travel. Sleep medication, such as melatonin, can help remedy jet lag because it provides additional stimuli to coax the circadian rhythm to align with the new time zone. Light exposure in the morning or evening can also help the body ease into the new time zone.

Nutrition is another important means of aiding the body to adapt its circadian rhythm. A high carbohydrate, low protein diet induces uptake of tryptophan and subsequent conversion to serotonin, which causes drowsiness. Diets high in fat and calories have been shown to impair circadian rhythm adaptation to the environment in animal subjects.

Airplane travel harms athletic performance via the reduced oxygen pressure.  Airplane cabin oxygen pressure is generally maintained at the equivalent of 5,000 to 6,000 feet in elevation. This produces a hypoxic stress. Several hours of flight will cause a drop in arterial oxygen pressure and one may need a day to fully recover their oxygen levels. Studies have shown that athletic performance suffers immediately after returning to altitude.

The miami heat basketball team airplane

It may be beneficial to understand the physiological effects of airplane travel, whether traveling for business, pleasure or an athletic competition. The best way to fight the effect of airplane travel is to fly at least a day before competition to provide sufficient rest.

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