Farewell to the fat cat: how bankers got trim

As bankers make it to the top ten most physically active professions, Olivia Goldhill looks at the world of competitive muscle-building, and how one of the most pressurised jobs lost its fat cat image

There are some men, powerful men, who wear their bulging waistlines with pride. Success stories of the fat cat generation, these men dominate large rooms and demand respect for their weight. Fat, for them, doesn’t show lack of self-control, but is physical proof of the high-profile deals brokered over long, alcohol-fuelled lunches.

These men have had their day.

Bankers have joined mechanics, plumbers and hairdressers as one of the top ten most physically active professions in Britain. Despite 17-hour working days and six-day working weeks, four in five bankers exercise 3.38 times a week, according to research from the British Heart Foundation.

Modern power brokers wake at 5am and run to their breakfast meeting, where they feast on kale and avocado smoothies instead of champagne and lobster. The men in suits switch to their trainers for a 10km after-work run and unwind with from their high-pressure jobs with company marathon training in place of company drinks.

John, who works at a major international bank, says that the era of “big boozy lunches” has ended.

“It would stand out if you were fat”, he says. “I can’t think of anyone in my team that’s overweight and there’s one person that’s overweight in the whole office. She’s from another team and it’s noticeable, it stands out compared to the others.”

Bankers consider themselves lucky to work a 65-hour week and so gym dedication is not just a hobby, but a priority—often above a social life and sleep.

James Grant, who works at a global private bank and says his hours “aren’t terrible" at 12-hours a day, says he works out five times a week, and he’s far from alone.

“My flatmate works seven days a week or a minimum of six, and Monday to Friday he’s going in at about 9am and coming back at 2am or later. It’s completely insane and he’s like a zombie, but he still finds time to go to the gym”, he says.

James, who used to compete in pole vaulting and decathlon athletics events at national level, says he doesn’t feel mentally healthy without exercise.

“I think there’s correlation with people who take sport seriously and translate that routine and discipline to their working life. I like to think of myself as very well-organised. I’m very good at multi-tasking and dealing with pressure, and sports helps with stress”, he says.

Stress is the baseline emotion at James’ bank, where 40% of bankers at his company were fired last year, and sports can help relieve some of that tension.

“It’s a competitive culture. In my old team there were two people who hadn’t really worked out before. They saw that my boss was spending thousands of pounds on personal trainers and supplements, so they did a competition for ten weeks to see how strong they could get and if they could beat my boss without spending anywhere near as much money”, he says.

The Wolf of Wall St showed a world of excess. But bankers now compete over how fast they can run, not how much they can drink

Samantha, who works at a major international bank, agrees that competitive can extend outside the boardroom.

Banking attracts sporty types, “who are very committed and ambitious when they set themselves targets", she says. “We have a lot of charity races and you can look up the times online, so people are very competitive about their results. The changing rooms are packed at lunchtime and when you walk out in Canary Wharf, everybody’s out running.”

While women have never been allowed to pull off the “fat cat” image, Samantha says men now need to look lithe too.

“There’s a pressure to look trim but it applies to men as well—I don’t think it’s acceptable for either gender to not to be in shape”, she says.

Plus, for those who are chained to their desks, a short burst of exercise provides some much-needed relief.

Thomas Maizels, an investment banker at Spayne Lindsay, recently completed a charity triathlon that was organised by his company.

“It adds a balance”, he says. “It’s not the healthiest lifestyle if you’re sat at your desk, eating at your desk, the whole time. Running is a well-being, mental thing to clear your mind.”

And what about those people who prefer to cloud their mind with drinks? As James says, the banks aren’t picking up the bill anymore.

“Everything’s centred around cost cutting at the moment. Everyone at my bank is being check and watched over, so there’s less scope to go wild”, he says.

And while he says an older generation may have a fat cat mentality, James says the chief executive of his bank is “a very fit, very trim guy”.

“You don’t see the high rollers, dominant fat cats pushing their weight around”, he says.

While the rest of us can’t afford to spend money on a champagne breakfast, bankers can’t afford the time. In the race for bankers to get to the top, running sessions have become the new power lunch.