How To Keep Fit & Healthy As An Investment Banker (When You’re Working 100 Hour Weeks)
It’s midway through your first year as a banker.
You just got back from the holiday party, and after taking a day off to recover from your hangover, you’re ready to rock and roll.
You pull out your favorite pair of slacks from the closet, fumbling to put them on…
…and as you do so, they split in half – far too small for your waist, which has gained 4 inches (10 cm) in the past 6 months.
And now you’re naked from the waist down, too, but that’s a smaller issue.
Here’s what went wrong, and how you can lose all that weight you just gained – with only 4 hours of free time (or less) per week.
Back in school, you were an athlete – a powerlifter, a marathon runner, or even Michael Phelps.
Or maybe you weren’t, but at least you were in decent shape and had clothes that fit.
Now, you’re just a sleep-deprived, borderline-alcoholic, overweight banker – though you have gotten better at Excel.
You gained 25 pounds (~11 kg) in the past 6 months, but it’s not your fault – the universe has been conspiring against you to make it near-impossible to stay in shape as a banker.
The Demons of Fat Gain
You have a lot going against you and very little working for you as a banker:
- You sit motionless for extended periods – and might even have bad posture when doing so.
- You’re addicted to Seamless and eat horrible takeout food all the time.
- Too many bottles, not enough models.
- You never do any exercise because you’re too busy doing the investment banking analyst grind.
- Your co-workers will ridicule you if you don’t drink every single day.
Taken alone, any of these would make you fatter – but altogether they create a deadly cocktail of fat gain and will result in multiple trips to the “plus size” store.
Oh, and remember: no amount of money or fame will save you from health problems. Bill Clinton, former leader of the free world, earned over $100 million USD since he left office and that didn’t save him from quadruple bypass surgery.
How to Vanquish the Demons and Lose Fat
You need to combine diet and exercise and modify habits like drinking and how long you sit in your chair.
That seems simple, and if you’re not an investment banker, it is – but as a banker, you have a lot of problems that the average dieter never faces.
Most fitness advice online assumes that you can work out whenever you want for as long as you want, and that you have infinite time to cook food for yourself.
Rather than repeating those unrealistic suggestions, we’re going to focus on specifically what you must do to stay in shape as a banker.
The most common problem is fat gain, so that will be the main goal – but the advice here goes beyond that and will address issues like lower back pain, high blood pressure, diabetes, and your overall energy level.
Assumptions and Sources & Uses
I’m assuming that you:
- Have very little free time (< 4 hours per week) and no flexibility in your schedule.
- Cannot cook because of this lack of free time.
- Are often in social situations where you’re pressured to eat junk food and drink alcohol.
- Care more about losing fat or not gaining fat in the first place than you do about gaining muscle or building endurance (there’s nothing wrong with those, but they’re much harder to pull off as a banker).
- Have an inkling of common sense. If you think that donuts are better for you than vegetables, please press Alt + F4 right now.
We’re not going to get into a debate over different diet plans, like Atkins vs. South Beach vs. Paleo vs. Slow-Carb – the specific details matter far less than following the high-level ideas, which are similar in different plans.
I’m also not going to turn this into science class and get into a technical explanation of everything, because that’s off-topic and you can read all about the science elsewhere.
The focus here will be how to avoid getting fat as a banker – through diet, reduction of social pressure, exercise, Starbucks (the lifeblood of any banker), the right kind of bottles, and some secret ingredients.
As a banker, the usual habit is to skip breakfast altogether, get takeout for lunch, and then eat a huge dinner with 2 desserts from Seamless.
When you first start, this seems great: you’ve gone from being a starving student to eating steak and tiramisu every day.
The only problem is that you’re also getting fatter every day.
Modify this routine by:
- Eating smaller meals at least 4 times per day – and more if possible. It helps your metabolism.
- Avoiding Seamless and similar takeout and going for healthier options.
- Always eating immediately after you wake up.
What do you eat, and how can you possibly have time for 4 meals per day?
First, each meal should have protein, fat, carbohydrates (optional – keep reading), and vegetables, with about half as much fat as the others (since it has twice the calories).
Examples that you can easily get at restaurants or from stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, with minimal prep time:
- Sashimi with salad
- Chicken salad with olive oil and vinegar
- Tofu, beans, and vegetables (the vegetarian option)
- Egg whites with avocado, cheese, whole wheat bread, and spinach
- Low-fat cottage cheese with nuts and fruit
- Sardines and whole wheat crackers
The last 2 are missing vegetables, so you can just add in a mixed salad there.
In keeping with the “no science class” rule above, I’m not going to spell out the mix of protein/fat/carbohydrates in each of these but feel free to look up the facts yourself if you’re curious.
Use your $20-30 dinner allowance to buy these, and try to get pre-made meals as much as possible – otherwise you’ll be pressed for time.
To take care of breakfast and your snack in between lunch and dinner, you can order extra the night before and save it for the next day, you can run to a store close to your building during a break, or you can use one of my ninja tricks below.
If you do it properly, eating 4x per day takes no more time than eating just 2x because you’re at your desk anyway, and you’re eating food you already have.
Wait, Aren’t Carbs Bad? / What Should I Avoid?
Ever since the Atkins diet became popular there has been a crusade against carbohydrates: “Don’t eat them,” critics say, “or you’ll turn into the Pillsbury Dough Boy.”
There is some truth to that, and cutting out foods with a lot of carbohydrates – especially simple ones like white rice – will help you. But as a banker, it’s probably not viable to completely cut out carbs because you need the energy for all those all-nighters.
So if you can do so, reduce carbs, especially when it’s late at night. But rather than obsessing over that, make sure you avoid anything with sugar – that’s the absolute worst thing you can eat if you want to stay slim.
You’ll be pressured into ordering dessert all the time, going to Starbucks constantly, and harvesting as much junk food as possible from your office’s kitchen, so avoiding sugar is easier said than done.
The easiest solution is to use artificial sweeteners, such as stevia, if you need your fix of sweets. These are not great to have in huge quantities either, but in small doses they are much better than real sugar.
As a banker, your co-workers will pressure you into ordering more food than you can possibly eat just to use up your entire dinner allowance.
There are 2 ways to deal with this: avoidance and limited acceptance.
You could tell them you’re slammed and have no time to take a break and eat – but you don’t want to do that all the time or you’ll end up with no friends.
Maybe try this one 2-3x per week, but don’t rely on it every day or you’ll be excluded from group outings.
For the times when you do have to go eat together, just follow the guidelines above: make sure your meal has a mix of protein, fat, carbs (optional), and vegetables.
So if you go out and they say you have to order a steak or they’ll laugh at you, go ahead and do it – just make sure it’s not massive (because you’re eating 3 other times throughout the day) and that it has vegetables on the side.
When it comes time for dessert and drinks, say you need to finish a few more things at work so you can’t drink much, and that you’re too full for dessert because you ate a few hours ago.
We’re going to ignore that completely for one simple reason: you do not have time for extended cardio workouts as an investment banker.
You might be called back to the office at any time, on any day of the week, for any reason, so you need to think in 15-minute increments rather than hour-long or multi-hour-long sessions.
So the only option is strength training, for 3 reasons:
- As mentioned above, you need to get intense exercise in a very short amount of time.
- Unlike the equivalent amount of cardio, even a short and intense weight lifting workout will help you burn more calories for over a day if you do it properly.
- Doing resistance training will help your body absorb more calories and carbs immediately afterward, so you can loosen your dietary restrictions a bit.
If you have extra time, sure, go for a run, a bike ride, or go swimming whenever you can.
But if you’re a banker with an unpredictable schedule and almost no free time, you need to do quick but high-intensity strength-training workouts each week for the highest ROI.
What to Do At the Gym
Ideally, you will go to the gym 3 times per week for very quick workouts: I suggest Friday night, early in the day Sunday, and then once more whenever you have time during the week.
You are more likely to have free time on Friday night because senior bankers leave earlier – and you’re less likely to be called into the office early on Sunday.
A simple plan would be chest and triceps on one day, back and biceps on the next day, and then lower body on your final workout day.
Before the powerlifters reading pick apart this plan, remember that I’m assuming no knowledge or previous experience and extremely limited time – so please resist the temptation to argue for something more complicated.
If you’re pressed for time, you can condense this to 2 workouts instead and do upper body all on one day and lower body all on the other day – but if you do that, you should leave at least a few rest days in between workouts.
Finding Time to Go to the Gym
This can be tricky, and it depends on how your group operates: you’re best off asking if it’s OK to leave for 30 minutes in the early evening, and then getting in the habit of always going at that time.
Don’t ask for permission when you first start working – you should use the first month or two to prove yourself as reliable, and then “make the ask” once the senior bankers know you’re good.
If your group is not open enough to discuss non-work issues, then you’ll have to follow my suggestion above and go on Friday and Sunday, and then whenever else you have time in between.
That might be 2 AM on a Tuesday – not an ideal time to work out, but far better than doing nothing at all.
Oh, and if you’re a female banker you still need to do everything above and focus on strength training: you’re not going to turn into the Incredible Hulk, since male and female bodies react much differently to working out.
Trips to Starbucks
This is yet another problem if you’re a banker who wants to stay in shape – you’ll be called to Starbucks and pressured into ordering that grande chocolate frappuccino all the time.
Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: avoid anything with sugar or milk in it. That means you have only 2 options at Starbucks: americano or espresso.
But you could turn this restriction into your advantage by ordering triple espressos all the time to make yourself look hardcore and then say that you need the caffeine for yet another all-nighter.
Critics will say that this results in too much caffeine, but that’s far better than having too much sugar: as a banker you must pick the lesser of two evils.
Outside of coffee, you should only drink water (ideally liters per day), tea, and yerba mate (the loose-leaf variety, anything else is too weak).
Sugar-free Red Bull and other drinks with artificial sweeteners are fine in small quantities, but try to shift over to tea for your caffeine fix as much as possible.
What about alcohol? I’m glad you asked…
Bottles and Bottles
Most hardcore fitness buffs will tell you that alcohol, like sugar and carbs, will instantly turn you into the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
That’s not far from the truth: alcohol (especially beer) has a lot of calories and even if it doesn’t, it prevents your body from burning off calories until the alcohol is processed.
As a banker, though, you can’t completely cut out alcohol because you’ll be pressured into drinking with your co-workers, with clients, and at events like holiday parties.
So follow these guidelines instead:
- Avoid beer and anything with a lot of sugar, like soju or sugary cocktails, at all costs.
- Stick to whiskey shots and other hard alcohol when you must drink – it’s not ideal, but it’s “less bad” for you than beer because the calorie count is lower.
- Red wine in limited quantities (1-2 glasses per day) is arguably OK as well, or at least “less bad” than beer.
- Try to drink no more than once a week if you can help it – just say you’re busy the rest of the time.
I can’t help much with the models, but that’s how to handle the bottles side of the equation.
The Cherry On Top
Those are the key principles, and if you follow everything above you’ll be better off than 99% of incoming bankers who haven’t even thought about how they’ll stay in shape as cubicle monkeys.
You’re supposed to avoid dessert, but just this once as a cherry on the top of the rest of this advice, here are a few tips and tricks to take it to the next level:
Think Thin Bars
As you can tell, I’m borderline obsessive-compulsive about fitness and nutrition – and I’ve searched far and wide for the best way to eat decently with no free time.
The best solution I’ve found is the Think Thin bar: each one is 240 calories and has a mix of protein, fat, and “limited” carbs (the sugar alcohols in the bar are not fully absorbed by your body), and you can easily pack them for consumption whenever you want.
The one flaw is that they have relatively high saturated fat, so you shouldn’t go overboard: use them as a backup plan when you need to eat but don’t have anything else.
You can easily sneak these in and avoid drawing suspicion to yourself while you’re at your desk since they’re so quick to eat.
NEPA stands for Non-Exercise Physical Activity, and it’s one of the most important – and easiest – things you can do as a banker to stay in shape.
If you’re staring at the monitor without moving all day, you’ll quickly develop lower back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, and slow down your metabolism.
But if you take quick breaks to walk around for a few minutes every hour, you can avoid much of that, or at least reduce its impact.
Unless you walk for hours and hours a day you won’t lose much weight doing this, but taking these breaks is more about preventing back problems, eye strain, and carpal tunnel syndrome than burning fat.
So use all those trips to Starbucks with other analysts/associates as a way to get NEPA, socialize, and get your caffeine fix.
It’s easier to take breaks late at night when senior bankers are not around to watch everything you do, but even during the day you can take breaks during your downtime and do something as simple as walking to the bathroom or pretending that you have to go talk to someone else.
Does Any of This Actually Work?
Like most bankers, I got out of shape in my first year and then lost around 40 pounds (~18 kg) in the last 6 months of my second year by following the plan above.
Other friends in banking have followed this plan to similar success.
I’m not a doctor and this tutorial does not represent a scientifically controlled experiment – like everything else on the site, it is advice that has worked well for others.
This plan is admittedly more difficult to follow in countries outside the US and even in cities outside NY/SF/LA because there are not as many options for food, and many places don’t have 24-hour gyms.
So you may not be able to follow everything precisely, but as long as you avoid the most common mistakes you’ll still be in better shape than most bankers.
First, find a 24-hour gym close to your office, and then locate several restaurants and grocery stores nearby that have the food you need.
When you first start working, go to the gym whenever you have a chance. After 1-2 months, ask the senior banker you work most closely with if it’s OK to go for 30 minutes 3x per week around dinner time.
Rather than ordering takeout on Seamless all the time, use your dinner allowance to get the proper food at places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, and save some so that you can eat immediately when you wake up the next day – and if you run out, keep Think Thin bars on hand as your backup plan.
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