“5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing” With Dr. William Seeds & Elaine Economou

Move your body in ways that bring you joy every day! Ditch the idea of fitness as something external like the size of your biceps or your six-pack, and get strong by doing something you enjoy. Love your body for all of the miraculous things it does every day, for all its imperfections, and move. […]

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Move your body in ways that bring you joy every day! Ditch the idea of fitness as something external like the size of your biceps or your six-pack, and get strong by doing something you enjoy. Love your body for all of the miraculous things it does every day, for all its imperfections, and move. By paying attention to our bodies through movement, we can be more mindful and impactful in every aspect of our lives.

As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elaine Economou. Elaine is co-founder and CEO of MOVE Wellness®, a fitness studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan that features Pilates, GYROTONIC EXPANSION SYSTEM®, wellness coaching, yoga and other mind-body services. A former professional dancer, Elaine has been teaching movement and fitness for more than 20 years and champions a brand of movement instruction that celebrates each individual body and its unique needs. Anchored by a commitment to community, MOVE partners with businesses in and around Ann Arbor like St. Joseph Health System and AFC Ann Arbor to create a positive impact on collective health and wellness.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?

Myown fitness history started with dance, which I’ve been doing since I was little. In college, I studied ballet and modern dance, mostly Graham technique, and later took a number of daily classes in New York and Chicago. It was simply how I moved my body every day. When I was finally ready to close out my dance career, I realized I was losing that routine and would need to figure out what the rest of the world did for fitness.

I joined a great wellness center near me that was a pretty typical gym but a pleasant space. But I noticed one odd thing: No one seemed very happy to be exercising. For me, dancing was physically demanding, but it was also joyful. That kind of movement made me feel connected to the people around me and proud of what my body could do. It was nourishing. And what I saw around me at the gym felt like the opposite of that. People working out for the sake of doing so with no real sense of what they were doing and why. Watching tv instead of listening to their bodies. Trying to “feel the burn” instead of engaging in true functional movement.

And the question for me was, “when did working toward better health become such drab, disconnected work?” My work as a Pilates and GYROTONIC® trainer and wellness coach grew from that genuine inquiry. There’s piles of research that confirms exercise habits become sustainable when they make people feel good. And that’s exactly what my experience as a dancer was: It made me feel good, so I kept doing it, and the positive effects that held for my overall health and well-being were exponential. Joseph Pilates said 60 years ago that people should feel energized after practicing the exercises he developed, and that’s what’s beautiful and effective about movement systems like that.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The clients who I have been working with for years are what interests and inspires me. Some have been working with me for more than a decade. Ann is a great example. She ran and walked her entire life and even now well into her 80s, she does the gardening and yard work herself. And we’ve had a lot of conversations about how interesting it is to discover new things about our bodies as we age. With someone like her, we’re working on things like balance so that she can handle tasks like shoveling snow. She’s helped me develop professional appreciation for and insight into the aging process as it relates to our movement and our health. I consider it such a privilege to work with clients like her.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

It’s nearly impossible to pick just one. If you move your body on a daily basis, you’re going to do something funny at some point. I’ve dramatically fallen in classes. I’ve rolled right off toning balls while teaching classes. I’ve counted to 180 when doing the classic Pilates “hundred.” The key take-away is to go with the flow, because that’s what movement is. There is no place for perfection. Laughter is inspiring and when we laugh at ourselves, it gives clients the opportunity to celebrate their own imperfections.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

When you spend 20 years committed to the simple concept of helping people reconnect with their own bodies, you learn a lot. “Authority” probably isn’t the word I’d use, but my knowledge and capacity for helping clients lies in my commitment to the individual, rather than any need to impose a particular fitness trend or certain way to exercise. When someone first comes in for a session, it’s obviously not their first time exercising. For a lot of the people who walk through our door, we’re actually their last resort after years or even a lifetime of looking for a fitness solution and finding nothing that works. People don’t arrive as blank slates. Some of them have been discouraged, traumatized or seriously injured during a work out and are averse to the fitness industry by the time they get to us.

Opening yourself and your body up to someone else’s guidance makes you feel vulnerable and a trainer’s job is to listen, be present and prioritize your needs, not theirs. Creating a workout based on what you hear and see in someone’s body is the goal; This fundamental understanding is where any trainer’s authority comes from.

Pilates and the GYROTONIC® Expansion System are based on the work of two visionary individuals who used breathing as a starting place to organize movement. Applying that principle of human movement to anyone — whether it be a college athlete or a 60-year-old recovering from a hip replacement — is the foundation of what I do. And so many of our partnerships with local health care providers, researchers and experts in fields like sports nutrition, sleep, burnout and so on amplify that. With MOVE’s Instructor Training program, I get to shape how the next generation of trainers positively impacts their clients.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My business partner and co-founder, Robin Krienke, is an extraordinary person. We have known each other for 15 years. She has believed in me since day 1 and was fundamental in creating our vision for a positive culture and impact in our community. We have truly been through both the good and bad times in life together, and she has always shown up for me with her quiet grace, listening and offering endless support. She is tough, smart and not afraid to do the difficult work of running a business. Her presence and partnership makes excited for the future of what we’ve built together. She’s also a runner, and when we do a post-race workout to help her through any pain or soreness, she says things like, “Wow this stuff we do really works!” — which cracks me up and makes me love her even more.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

Typical advice like “eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more and get better sleep” is just one big generic piece of advice that makes no attempt to consider the individual person it’s meant to serve.

First, I think we need to focus more on helping people understand the “why” behind what we advise them to do, and help customize a plan based on lifestyle and needs.

Second, I think we need to ease up on the societal pressure that comes with trends like marathon running, interval training, doing a keto diet or even taking a barre or yoga class. These are all fine choices if they work for you. Knowing yourself and understanding what you find enjoyable are the keys to creating new long-term habits. If you think yoga is silly, can’t stand eating kale or find running unnecessary, don’t choose those things. You’re just setting yourself up for failure. If you love to move to music in your living room, then by all means do that for exercise. Make a list of your favorite vegetables and then include as many of them in your meals every day.

Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)

Everything in my list is based on the idea of self-awareness as the key to creating new, lasting habits.

  1. Move more. And by that I mean bring more movement into your day-to-day. Whether it’s walking, dancing, gardening, painting, playing with your dog, exploring a new park, or whatever — find the types of movement you enjoy and are naturally motivated to engage in and start adding more of it to your day. Even just 10 minutes at a time.
  2. Sit less. Sitting is the new smoking. Current research suggests that even working out intensely for an hour every evening can’t undo the negative effects of sitting all day. Which returns us to my first tweak: You have to find ways to sit less and move more.
  3. Eat more fresh food (instead of obsessing about eating less of other stuff). Simply adding more fresh foods –whichever ones you love most– into your diet at the start of the day will fill you up faster and increase your energy. Focus on what you can add into your diet, instead of what you should take away. What’s “healthy” is so specific to the individual, including age, genetics and so much more. I keep a close eye on the mounting research saying that a plant-based diet is the best fight against so many diseases.
  4. Create a sleeping ritual. The quality of our sleep affects everything. So, find a way to usher it in. Establish an enjoyable routine you can look forward to every night that helps you feel calm and comfortable. For me, that includes simply letting my family know that I’m “going upstairs” which is code for, “hey, I’m getting ready to do what I need to do so I can sleep well.” I take time to shower and prepare what I need for the next day and then read in bed. My colleague turns off his television two hours before bedtime and uses that time to work on a hobby he loves while listening to music.
  5. Practice gratitude. Yes, I’m really telling you to be grateful in order to improve your well-being. This is a habit that changes your mindset over time and can ultimately affect every aspect of your life. Every day, find time to jot down three things you’re grateful for, however simple they may be. Today, that list might include having wonderful family and friends, tomorrow it might be “I’m grateful for resisting the urge to yell at that person in traffic this morning.”

What makes those five tweaks so fabulous is that they all reinforce one another. And they’re all based on the principle that small, simple steps, customized for the individual, create lasting change.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?

It improves mood, stimulates all of your body’s functional systems (essentially reminding your body that it’s still alive and has work to do), and it helps maintain the physical strength and integrity that we need to stay healthy as we age. The body is a system of interrelated parts and when you exercise, you are positively impacting all of those parts.

For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?

This is an awesome question. If I could wave a magic wand and have every person do these three simple moves every day, we would have far less lower back pain in the world. These help support any other fitness activity like walking, running, dancing, or gardening.

  1. Simple, large arm circles (forward and backward) with focused breathing. Arm circles can undo tension in the neck and shoulders from typing, talking on the phone and driving. When you do those arm circles, think about that movement coming more from your shoulder blades and your trunk, rather than your hands or arms. A slow, long exhale will help you reduce stress.
  2. Bridges. Articulating bridges involve lying on your back with your knees bent and peeling your spine off the floor like a piece of tape, rocking from your pelvis and lower back to your upper back and then back down. This strengthens what we refer to as your “ back chain” (glutes and hamstrings) and brings mobility to your lower spine.
  3. Squats. It’s not about how low you go. It’s about engaging the right muscles with no pain. You can even hold onto a counter top or put a hand on the wall while squatting. The movement helps with the organic organization of the body.

In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long term injury?

Start slowly and listen to your body. Once you start really paying attention, you avoid counterproductive stress. This is where having a great movement trainer can be really helpful. They can help you figure out proper form and what it feels like, identify any musculoskeletal imbalances you might have and teach you how to increase difficulty in your workouts over time. You might have a great workout that leaves certain muscle groups sore if you’re not used to working them, but nothing you do should ever leave you feeling destroyed. For general soreness or after a lot of exercise, my all time favorite remedy is soaking in a warm bath with a couple cups of epsom salts for about 20 minutes right before bed.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Most recently I read Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness, and it solidified much of what I have read and believe to be true about building positive culture at work. When MOVE opened, I read Good to Great by Jim Collins and he describes culture as a “flywheel,” difficult to get started but impossible to stop. I am seeing our flywheel in action and it gives me the confidence to protect, encourage and celebrate it. Finally, Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead is a must-read and honors the complexity of being human in a leadership position.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Move your body in ways that bring you joy every day! Ditch the idea of fitness as something external like the size of your biceps or your six-pack, and get strong by doing something you enjoy. Love your body for all of the miraculous things it does every day, for all its imperfections, and move. By paying attention to our bodies through movement, we can be more mindful and impactful in every aspect of our lives.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Leave no stone unturned” has been my motto since we opened our fitness studio. It’s helped me go the extra mile when it comes to connecting with people or groups that share our values. Once, I was exhausted in a class at the end of the day. I was thinking about heading home quickly instead of taking the time to introduce myself as the owner to a client in class who I didn’t know. But ultimately, I went over to say hello. When I did, she excitedly told me how working with us had saved her from hip surgery and how grateful she felt that she found us. It just so happened that one of our physician partners was in the room to hear that testimonial, and it resulted in him hosting a physician open house at our studio later on.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Michelle Obama! (That’s everyone’s answer, right?) That’s probably an unrealistic answer, but I don’t care. My son currently lives on campus near Sasha Obama, so I like to think that one of these days we’ll magically meet and I’ll get Michelle onto a Pilates reformer or the GYROTONIC® Expansion System for an incredible workout and rich conversation about wellness.

In general, talking with anybody thinking about ways businesses can bring collective health and well-being to their communities is what I’m looking for right now. I’ve been thinking about how to positively impact our broader community by connecting what we do to specific groups of people and their unique needs, and I think much of that work will be rooted in technology, but with a person-to-person connection.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

@movewellness and @elaineeconomou on Facebook and Instagram

Linkedin: Elaine-Economou

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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