One natural habit that checks all the boxes of Wellness, Performance and Focus is breathwork. This all-natural practice has the power to still the mind, increase focus and increase performance, and it’s available to everyone. My favorite breathwork exercise is the 4–7–8 method — inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. This incredible tool lowers heart rate and increases oxygen to the brain as it improves mental clarity and reduces the cortisol levels that impact stress.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Howard, of obVUs Solutions.
Susan Howard graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University with a Masters of Science in Kinesiology-Integrative Wellness and holds a National Board Health & Wellness (NBC-HWC) credential, which represents the industry’s highest training, education and assessment standards. An integrative wellness professional with 25 years of experience, Susan is passionate about the development of disruptive health technology and leads minderPRO, a health coaching platform that supports the optimization of wellness utilizing scientific, evidence-based practices. Meeting clients where they are, minderPRO provides a collaborative partnership to further health goals by creating customized plans that leverage client’s strengths and strategically uses resources to create positive habits.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My childhood definitely had an impact on who I am today. Born and raised in the Midwest there were a lot of competitive sports, which nurtured my desire to be the best. I wanted to please my parents and please myself. My growth mindset challenged me to be creative and resilient as I navigated life as the only sister of two older athletic brothers. My family had its struggles with marital bliss, and running was a means to sustain my own autonomy, generate positive endorphins and balance the uncontrollable times. Running was my means of mindful moving meditation and my first introduction to lifestyle medicine. I recognized early on that my mental health and well-being were directly correlated to my physical well-being. At the young age of 10, I started competitive cross country and continued to run in Junior Olympics and state competitions throughout high school. Academics, arts and social engagement were also important to me as I navigated my way through adolescence. This mindset of making the most of any situation was the start of my life-long passion for seeking optimal well-being.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Coming from a strong Irish, Czechoslovakian and Polish heritage, my family made the most of life by focusing on the positive. Early on, I saw the fragileness of life as my father’s father, my father, and the father of my own children all passed away at a very young age. Witnessing the circle of life shortened due to a variety of variables sparked my curiosity and fueled my passion to make the most of my days with joy and embrace life by making healthful choices. These are the foundational principles as defined by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, which advocates for evidence-based lifestyle therapeutic intervention — a whole-food, plant-based diet, physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management and positive social connection — as its core pillars to prevent, treat and often reverse chronic disease.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
This may be a familiar story but both my mom and dad always held me in the highest unconditional regard, motivated me to go after my dreams, supported my curiosity, and encouraged me to take ownership of my decisions. I remember many moments after a race, test or challenging day where my dad would say to me, “The most important thing to me is your happiness.” Just writing this brings tears of joy, as I look back at how these relationships sculpted me into the happy, independent, creative, self-starter person I am today.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
An interesting flop in my career was the introduction of Virgin Healthmiles in 2006 which, at the time, was a leading innovator in corporate wellness programming. Their business model was to get people moving with an incentivized biofeedback pedometer program for members of a Los Angeles-based large athletic company that would ultimately help the company reduce its insurance premiums. Unfortunately, it failed largely because users didn’t understand its value. As I look back, it was an amazing program with lots of potentials, it was just ahead of its time. I learned that even the best ideas need to be positioned with support and that wellness technology, in order to succeed, needs to be seamlessly connected to software, hardware, human behavior and coaching.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
My biggest piece of advice for young people is to trust yourself, be creative and make the most of your resources. Connect with a mentor you admire and value. Develop a growth mindset and reframe challenges to make the most of each experience and know that life is a process that is in constant change. Take the time to appreciate the small wins and express gratitude for each moment. Use life experiences to create your own unique vision of the future and maintain mindful habits that support your progress.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
While completing my Masters, I read The Patient Will See You Now by Eric Topol and found it to be impactful and inspirational. The book highlights the ability of disruptive health technology to empower patients via biofeedback and data, and shows how we can embrace lifestyle medicine for positive change, both as individuals and collectively as a society.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
My favorite life lesson quote is, “Time to take a ME/Mo.” It comes from Ken Rosenblood, founder of obVus Solutions, and is the guiding principle behind the company. A ME/Mo (Me Moment) is any fun, purposeful break that allows you to take a moment to pause and focus on yourself. My favorite ME/Mo is breathwork. Breathwork decreases cortisol, supporting stress resilience, increases healthy hormones and endorphins and activates the parasympathetic nervous system to operate in a state of stasis, shutting down the flight, fight or freeze response. Science supports the wellness, performance and focus benefits of breathwork. I find this simple act of mindfulness allows for consciousness to emerge in the here and now.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Presently I work with well-tech company obVus Solutions to support the company’s award-winning wearable app called minder. In this role, I am applying my expertise as a health coach to provide one on one personalized coaching support to users of the app. I love working as a health coach, because we can effect change by meeting people where they are, and help change poor habits into healthy ones, one at a time. Other projects I’m excited about are my wellness design platform for global leaders and wellness coaching for survivors of human trafficking. Each program supports people in a collaborative partnership that helps create positive change in all dimensions of well-being.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?
I love this question because how we frame a question is the first step towards creating healthy habits. We begin to address change by first asking, “Why?” I also avoid the word “good” as it implies judgment. Long-lasting wellness habits are important as they improve the quality of life, from raising our energy level and promoting positive mental health to increasing longevity. Who doesn’t want to have more energy or less stress? A story I like to tell is of a client that worked from the lens of perfection. I asked him to assess his well-being from all perspectives: physical, mental, intellectual, creative, social, spiritual, occupational and financial. Although he was successful in business, he realized that his sense of happiness was flat. By reframing his perspective on success and focusing on areas of improvement, he was able to draw from his strengths and appreciate the process of change.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
My lifestyle habits include functional training, breathwork, a plant-based diet and a strong sleep protocol. From the time I was an athletic young child, I have valued the physical, mental, social, intellectual and spiritual value that cross country running provided. As a working professional, I am cognizant of too much Zoom screen time with clients and sitting for extended periods at the computer. To ensure I take regular mindful breaks throughout the day, I program my minder with ME/Mos. At the end of each day, minder rewards me with a “pat” (personal achievement token) for each completed ME/Mo. I find these daily “pats” act as an incentive and reinforce my healthy habits. As a result, I have the vitality of a person half my age, the resilience to manage life’s stress, and the fortune to live each day with happiness.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
Behavioral change is complex as it requires the disruption of a current habit while fostering a new set of actions. Research suggests it can take up to 254 days to break a habit; further, unmet goals can set one up for a vicious cycle of personal failure and disappointment. To change habits, you need expert support. Studies have proven that working one-on-one with a certified health coach is an effective way to condition healthy work habits, reverse strain and prevent injury before it occurs. Health coaching works because it puts the client in the driver’s seat and works collaboratively toward successful outcomes, helping improve quality of life. As the New York Times says, “We could all use a health coach.”
Technology is another tool that can affect positive change. Research shows that incorporating the use of wearables, such as minder, supports better outcomes; and that building life habit is sustainable when people create changes in small increments over time. Epigenetics points to daily lifestyle habits and environmental factors that add up over time to influence outcomes: truly, it is the small daily changes we make, or do not make, that greatly impact our health.
Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
One natural habit that checks all the boxes of Wellness, Performance and Focus is breathwork. This all-natural practice has the power to still the mind, increase focus and increase performance, and it’s available to everyone. My favorite breathwork exercise is the 4–7–8 method — inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. This incredible tool lowers heart rate and increases oxygen to the brain as it improves mental clarity and reduces the cortisol levels that impact stress. My minder wearable includes a variety of breathing exercises, so I like to experiment to see which one best fits my day — from Box Breathing, used by Navy Seals for calm and focus; to Brahmari or “humming breath” which is purported to cool the body and reduce fatigue. Uniquely, my minder wearable uses biofeedback technology and visuals to ensure both proper posture and use of my diaphragm while breathing.
Another simple habit that checks all the boxes is drinking ample water throughout the day, a ½ ounce to 1 ounce per pound of body weight. The brain’s composition is high in water, so proper hydration is needed to support performance and focus. Water also flushes toxins out from the body and assists liver function. To maintain optimal well-being, I program my minder with ME/Mo reminders to drink enough water so I stay hydrated throughout the day.
Lastly, taking regular short breaks helps elevate my mood. My minder app is programmed with my favorite movement ME/Mos including quick stretches, 5-minute jogs, and brisk outside walks with my dog, which help me reset by breaking up the day.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Technology is an effective tool to support positive change. Wearable devices often act as a “virtual coach,” empowering users to live healthier lives, to gain insight, reinforce success, alter habits and promote sustained behavior changes. Data gleaned from wearable devices provide us with insight into our unconscious habits, empowering users to see the “big picture” of our day-to-day lifestyle, and holding us accountable for the results.
Keeping a journal and documenting how you are feeling throughout the day can also be used to develop positive habits. Journaling helps identify stress points, documents positive change and clarifies your thoughts and goals so you keep on track and stay motivated.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
First, practice a positive mindset. Changing the brain’s processing leads to optimal performance, both in work and sports. Be your own best advocate with positive self-talk and avoid self-criticism. Instead, celebrate your wins and when you miss a goal, say to yourself, “This is an area I could use some support and focus on in order to improve.”
Secondly, shift to a growth mindset and look for the positive. When presented with a challenging situation, ask yourself, “How can I best support myself, what resources do I have available to call on?” As an example, I had a client that was stressed about a long work commute. I helped her evaluate her options, and as a result, she was able to arrange a new schedule that allowed her to work remotely. When we realize we have choices available to us, we empower ourselves to better address stress.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Support, in the form of a friend, mentor or health coach, can help you reach your goals, boost motivation and breakthrough any blind spots.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
Your own physiological process is a key component to the positive adoption of healthy habits. The reason for this is it builds autonomy and relies on one’s own internal locus of control. Science supports that, when we initiate the change process, long-term success is sustainable. So, the best question to ask is, “What action items can I take to create that habit?”
My checklist includes:
- Start small
- Track progress
- Celebrate the small wins
- Reframe bumps in the road and know that you can always start fresh, even after a short hiccup
- Enlist support, whether is a friend, mentor or certified health coach
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
- Mindful moments, or ME/Mos, are essential to maintain health, enhance recovery, and improve productivity. I take ME/Mo breathwork breaks throughout the day because it reboots the brain, allowing it to refocus. It also nourishes the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes and recharges the mind
- Sound sleep optimizes the body’s ability to focus and restores the mind and body. Aim for 7–9 hours per night. Set up a sleep ritual with consistent sleep and awake time. Your sleep environment should optimally be set at a cool 65–70 degree climate with minimized light and screen activity.
- Hydration: Since 75% of the brain is made up of water, it’s imperative to stay hydrated to optimize focus. Dehydration, even as small as 2%, can have a negative effect on brain function and cause acute changes in memory and attention. I set my minder wearable with reminders to drink throughout the day, starting with a large glass first thing in the morning.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
In my professional practice working with clients, I have found that incorporating quantitative data to document results and progress provides positive reinforcement and helps develop self-efficacy and autonomy and are key to creating lasting change. Biofeedback tools, like those on the minder app, are helpful in coaching proper posture and deep breathing. I find that positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy wearables offer support to the brain’s ability to adopt change. I also ask my clients to regularly check in with their feelings and emotions and to celebrate the small wins on the path to progress.
As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
I love this question as I believe that flow is key to the optimization of wellness, performance and focus. We can optimize flow and get into “the zone” by letting go of any thought or matter that does not benefit us. Conversely welcome all support and material that elevates our state of mind.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement to bring the highest good for the greatest number of people, I would encourage simple self-care actions that keep you in the present moment. We need to nourish positive perspectives of well-being and change for the better the narrative around self-care.
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, especially if we both tag them 🙂
If I had the opportunity to have a private breakfast or lunch or even a quick tennis match it would be with Serena Williams. She has the heart and soul of a champion and recognizes the importance of turning the brain off to rejuvenate, as well as the importance of hydration to keep the mind and body at its optimal functionality. She’s a great example of living wellness as a lifestyle.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn more about the benefits of technology and certified health coaching to support wellness at www.obvus.me and at Susanhowardwellness.com.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.