Lafayette, LA, native Emily Cook Harris is all Southern charm. Effusive, energetic, and unabashedly straightforward, the founder of EMpowered fitness talks about movement, dance, and fitness in a steady stream of adoration. And that’s good news for her clients and devoted followers, as she offers a unique style of energizing fitness and lifestyle coaching, not to mention giving back through education focused charity, as well as FITWeek.
Growing up part of a super active family (her mother is a PE teacher while her grandfather still teaches kinesiology in Mississippi and her sister teaches Pilates...natch), she enjoyed bike rides and healthy meals before majoring in kinesiology. Plus, her time as a professional dancer gave her an inside link to the power of movement.
In her last semester of college, the ambitious fitness enthusiast traveled to NYC and cut her teeth as an intern helping in the fitness department at 30 Rock. While hobnobbing with media and performance clients, she gained her personal training certifications before moving on to a role in corporate wellness at MetLife.
Eventually, when a broken tailbone curtailed her professional dance career, it was time to put the word out for private clients. Her trajectory shifted drastically, and while she missed dance, she heard her new tune of trainer calling loud and clear. Building her business one client at a time, her roster blossomed, so much so that in 2013 Racked named her New York’s hottest trainer!
Now, with a stable of trainers nurturing clients in New York, she’s hard at work in LA, while maintaining her engaging approach and charity work. Fascinated? Read on.
SBS: How would you describe your company, EMpowered?
ECH: EMpowered offers a more positive approach on making habit changes for life. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, but overall health and lifestyle is longer lasting and crucial. So, we look at what type of movement you enjoy and a realistic path. If you’re working out three days a week but want to hit six, you have to build up to it. So maybe we start with getting four workouts in consistently.
When I started EMpowered, I felt this type of perspective was lacking in the wellness space at that time. It’s fortunately changed now, but then, much of it felt like simply means to an end, like being skinny or having a six-pack. But my experience with movement was instead about moving fiercely and loving each choice in that area. Running fast is another person’s weight-lifting, for example. But either way, moving with intensity and vigor is so meaningful to me. I felt that even more when I was injured and my dance career ended. I felt sad...like a piece of me was missing. But I learned about myself, including an identity shift. I am a dancer, and I also am someone with a big heart. It opened up self-exploration, and that led to my approach in my work now in terms of loving movement in many forms.
SBS: What’s unique about the EMpowered approach?
ECH: To me it’s an all-encompassing, 360-degree approach. I use fitness as a foundation, but really it’s a whole strategy where we look at your entire week. What’s your fitness goal, what’s your health goal? And we do all that, knowing that when you achieve said goals, the confidence you have will lead you to confidence in work and relationships: a better total life.
Then, it’s all personalized. Maybe I write out a circuit for you to complete, maybe it’s something else. There’s nothing cookie cutter. It must be convenient. We are also big on tracking fitness and nutrition. For example, most people participate in food logging, including writing notes about how the client actually feels. There are areas for water, sleep, recovery and then a ‘you’ box. Are you taking care of your creative side, your spirit side and things that make you happy? All these things are important.
SBS: You ensure that part of EMpowered’s mission includes charity work. Why is this important to you, and how does it manifest now?
ECH: I’ve always been passionate about education and the power education has to transform a life. I think it’s a parallel to fitness. You can transform your own life.
Personally, after reading Half the Sky, I couldn’t ignore how women are treated in many places: denied access to education and more. I felt a deep sense of doing something about it. So since 2010, we’ve sponsored the education of more than 50 girls.
Then, I also started FITWeek, which is three years old. It’s grown every year. It was an idea I birthed from loving fitness and giving back. I had taught a series of bootcamp classes for girls’ education in Central Park—wearing school dresses! I later taught a class and partnered with Uplift Studios. I thought, ‘What if I teach one class, and what if you teach one?’ So the ask is small, but the payoff can be huge. That was the beginning. Now, different studios participate, and the proceeds from one class from each given studio are donated to education. This year we did our third FITWeek, and over three years, we’ve raised $16,000!
SBS: What are the first five things someone can do to overhaul their health?
- Get clear on what you want and why. Elaborate that why. If it’s only at surface, your willpower will run out.
- Write that shit down. Use pen and paper, or draw pictures. Write down not just the goals, but the feeling and charge you desire too.
- Make a plan and strategy. We get discouraged by the distance, so the secret sauce is to look at one day and week at a time. You can make progress in one week.
- Track your progress, and that goes back to writing everything down. You may make a plan that’s too advanced. If you set your goal at six workouts and consistently only get four in, then maybe six was too progressive.
- Be ok with doing it your own way. Celebrate your accomplishments because you get to define what success is to you. What is the best movement for you? If you love Zumba and someone else hates it, you’re both right.
SBS: What are some common fitness mistakes you notice?
ECH: People put such harsh expectations on themselves. We can often be good cheerleaders for others but not for ourselves. That includes setting a goal that’s a long-term goal but interpreting it as a short-term goal. If you’re starting out working out one day a week and aiming immediately for six, you might be biting off a bigger goal than you’re ready for!
In a more practical way, I see a lot of squats and lunges where people are not recruiting their glute muscles. They often forget to send the hips way back and sit into the heels. Instead they just quad load. But if you start using your glutes, they’ll not only be stronger, but you’ll also move more easily in general, too.
Then, we hold a lot of tension in our traps, upper neck and shoulder area. Unfortunately then, a lot of overhead exercises are being done with shoulders way up in the ears—even in downward dog in yoga. That perpetuates tension and leaves the back not activated.
SBS: What are some helpful cues teachers can use in class? Some you don’t love?
ECH: The idea of “shoulders down and back” helps to get both pieces of info across. You’ll do better push-ups this way.
I don’t love the idea of movement being used to negate food you ate, as in the holiday term of ‘work off the holiday.’ That sends the message that food is bad.
SBS: In your experience, what’s essential to understand about growing a business?
ECH: Be ok with evolving. Especially since my formal education is not in business, I had to be comfortable with doing things one way and then evolving when I found a better way. The only way to make progress is to do. Then you iterate as you go. You don’t have to know all the answers right away.
Also, be around good people. It’s empowering. My company has grown because of awesome people and clients. And passion is the essential ingredient when we are doing anything EMpowered, whether we’re talking about trainers or ambassadors.
Finally, I’m Google all the way! We use Google calendar, Gmail and so on. It keeps us organized, and it’s universal.
Healthy Restaurants: NYC: Westville; LA: Gracias Madre
Splurge Restaurant: Magnolia Bakery
Calm Activity: Reading, preferably outside on a nice day or in bed under the covers
Fun Activity: Dancing! In a class or out with friends
Fitness Studios/Classes: The Fhitting Room in NYC or Training Mate in LA
Books: Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra, We Should All Be Feminists byChimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Where Will You Be Five Years from Today? by Dan Zadra
Zaniest/Best Part of Being You!: I now own a telescope!! I’m fascinated by the magnificence of the night sky and the elegance of the moon. When I look up, I'm reminded that whatever I may be facing is small in comparison, and things will always work out for my greatest good. Expect lots of moon pics soon!
Emily’s SBS Mantra: Be Bright. In a world that can sometimes feel so dim with negativity, it's essential to never dull our radiance to fit in. Instead, be a light. Kindness is a light. Compassion is a light. Joy is a light. Be the brightest you can be, and use your talents to help others.