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Feeding A Need For Fitness
Tara Weiss, 05.29.07, 12:00 PM ET

William Sullivan and I are each lying on our bellies atop exercise balls, flailing our arms and trying to lift our bodies up and down.

So this is how a CEO stays healthy? Sullivan, chief executive of the Ronald McDonald House of New York, knows the routine; he's been doing it for about five years with his personal trainer Harold Smith. I, on the other hand, keep falling off the ball.

Sullivan hates it. But his medical history and lifestyle demand it. Sullivan's father died of a massive heart attack at age 42 after his first one when he was 36. Sullivan endured his own bout with prostate cancer six years ago. Add to that mix the stress that comes from being the CEO of such a busy charitable organization.

"Nothing personal, Harold, but my favorite part of working out is opening the door to leave," says Sullivan, 47. He says he wouldn't make it to his gym--New York Sports Club in Manhattan's Murray Hill neighborhood--if he didn't have his standing appointments with Smith.

Obviously, being a CEO is demanding and filled with pressure. There isn't much personal time, and evenings are often spent at cocktail parties schmoozing for work instead of eating a healthy dinner with the family. All those meals mean there are daily temptations to overindulge in good food and drink.

That's the physical part. There's also an emotional aspect. "People who exercise regularly handle stress better," says Smith. "When they do get stressed out, it doesn't last that long."

Sullivan agrees. He's in the middle of a set of curls with 10-pound free weights when he goes a step further, saying: "If I take a week off from exercising, I have sleep problems, and I get irritable, too. I tend to have lower back pain, and we focus my workout on strengthening my back. When I exercise, I don't need to take any pain medicine."

Those crunches on the exercise ball might make us feel silly, but they're targeting our lower back and core stomach muscles. For the next half hour, Sullivan divides his time between free weights and machines that build up his leg muscles and his chest. "Because of his schedule, he doesn't have a lot of time to be in here," says Smith. "We do weight training to keep him trim and healthy."

Sullivan's job has an added layer of anxiety, given his field. He's in charge of fundraising and running the day-to-day operations of the largest Ronald McDonald House in the country--which provides families a home and emotional support while their children receive treatment for cancer.

After two years on the job, Sullivan has learned how to handle the emotions that come with seeing sick kids on a daily basis. But it still gets to him, sometimes. Several days after the House's recent annual gala, held in front of more than 1,000 people, he complimented an 8-year-old with leukemia on his piano performance and became so overwhelmed with emotion he had to excuse himself.

That's another reason he forces himself to go to the gym--it helps keep his emotions under control. "Anything that's a diversion to stress is good," he says. "I used to be a workaholic and never took vacations. Now, I have no problem taking a Friday afternoon off."

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