International, interdisciplinary scholar becomes chair of Department of Kinesiology
By Lauren Knapp
Before he ever stepped foot on Michigan State University’s campus, Panteleimon “Paddy” Ekkekakis visited the birthplace of the Spartan name and logo: Sparta, Greece. Sparta is 165 miles (or about 265 kilometers) from Ekkekakis’ hometown on the island of Crete.
But for the new chair of the Department of Kinesiology, East Lansing, and the Midwest, already feels like home. Ekkekakis became chair on Aug. 1, 2022.
Ekkekakis, a third-generation educator, was formerly a faculty member at Iowa State University, which he had joined in 2000. He has a Ph.D. in Kinesiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), in addition to degrees from Kansas State University and the University of Athens.
His research examines affective responses to exercise, or the psychological responses and state of an individual during and after physical activity.
“In our field, the thinking has been: ‘Exercise makes people feel better.’ But do we have that 100% right?” Ekkekakis said in a presentation at MSU in November 2021.
In his interdisciplinary research, he has begun to find answers.
EXERCISE AND THE BRAIN
Currently, Ekkekakis explores how brain function relates to intensity, the sensation of fatigue and the appeal of physical activity.
Ekkekakis and colleagues proposed the dual-mode theory to describe the complex relationship between exercise intensity and the way it makes people feel. The theory helps scholars, physicians and scientists know “what we need to do to make someone feel better or worse by adjusting physical activity intensity,” said Ekkekakis.
The work inspired software that analyzes breathing data during intense activities—quantifying when individuals can be pushed on intensity or not—which is used by the U.S. Navy to train divers, as well as by other athletic organizations.
Ekkekakis also studies individuals who experience an excessive sense of fatigue during physical exertion. Fatigue is a relatively common condition associated with a broad range of diseases, such as cardiac and pulmonary disorders, depression and more. Ekkekakis is examining how the brain’s prefrontal cortex and amygdala may play a role.
Another goal of his work is to develop better methods for recommending physical activity to the public.
“Kinesiology, the study of movement, has been growing exponentially on the basis of a promise,” Ekkekakis said. “The promise is that if you exercise, it will be good for you. You’d perhaps stay away from the doctor or hospital longer, you’d feel better. But, importantly, this promise cannot be fulfilled if we cannot succeed in getting anyone off the couch. We haven’t been able to do that.”
Obesity is a growing problem in the United States. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said1 “the number of states in which at least 35% of residents have obesity has nearly doubled since 2018.” COVID-19 potentially exacerbated the issue: Nearly half of U.S. adults indicated they gained weight during the first 12 months of the pandemic.2
“Most people believe in the benefits of exercise, but most U.S. adults do less than the recommended amount of physical activity. It’s unprecedented,” Ekkekakis said. “Almost everyone is convinced it is a good thing, but almost no one is doing it. We need a new approach.”
Ekkekakis and fellow colleagues posit affective processes may play an important role.
“While humans recognize the benefits of physical activity, there is also more at play,” he explained. “They may find if they go to the gym, they’re intimidated or concerned that others may look at them. We are suggesting a shift away from convincing people to exercise, and instead we are designing strategies that remove negative associations to exercise to make it seem more appealing.”
FROM ATHENS TO AMERICA
Helping people become healthier is work Ekkekakis has engaged in since 1991 when, at the University of Athens, he took a course called “Sport for All.” As Ekkekakis puts it, it was his “introduction to the concept of physical activity as a public health intervention.”
After earning a master’s in Kinesiology at Kansas State University (where he taught his first kinesiology class, “Introduction to Kinesiology”), he started doctoral studies at UIUC, where Ekkekakis “had the opportunity to study with and learn from some of the best in the world” in exercise psychology. In 2000, shortly before graduating, he earned the Outstanding Student Paper Award from the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA). He then joined Iowa State University as a faculty member, a position he held until his transition to MSU.
MSU, he said, is known for being the home of “icons” in the kinesiology field, such as Professor Emeriti Deborah Feltz and Daniel Gould. He recalls being shaped by their published works—a tradition he has continued by producing iconic works of his own, including:
- Co-editor: “Psychobiology of Physical Activity” (Human Kinetics, 2006), a “first-of-its-kind” resource on the growing field
- Editor: “Routledge Handbook of Physical Activity and Mental Health” (Routledge, 2013), a comprehensive review of the research on the effects of physical activity on multiple facets of mental health
- Author: “The Measurement of Affect, Mood and Emotion: A Guide for Health-Behavioral Research” (Cambridge University Press, 2013), an accessible and comprehensive guidebook
Ekkekakis has contributed more than 30 chapters to published works, numerous refereed research publications and been an editor or reviewer for more than 70 journals. His research has been cited over 13,500 times.
Ekkekakis’ expertise has been shared around the globe. He has presented lectures, seminars and workshops in more than 30 cities across 15 countries, and has served as the keynote speaker for several major conferences, including the International Association of Applied Psychology and the Association of Research on Physical and Sports Activities.
In 2019, Ekkekakis was named a Fellow of the National Academy of Kinesiology. That same year, he was invited to speak for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s Board on Behavioral, Cognitive and Sensory Sciences in Washington, D.C. He spoke during a workshop on how to incorporate experimental approaches into primary prevention trials for Alzheimer’s disease.
“As an immigrant,” Ekkekakis said, “this was my proudest academic moment.”
His talk from the workshop—“If you know it’s good for you, why don’t you do it? Physical activity reconceptualized as the product of interacting reflective and affective processes”—is reflective of Ekkekakis’ mission as a scholar.
He believes in the power of research to be transformative. Big problems don’t intimidate Ekkekakis. The possibilities excite him.
“I’m concerned about whether we’re being effective as a field in improving the work,” he said. “The potential is there. I want to envision research that will improve the status quo and change current norms in tangible, meaningful ways.”
He believes in the strength of collaboration, ideating and interdisciplinary mindsets, like those of the faculty and students in the MSU Department of Kinesiology.
“All of us study movement in one way or another,” he said. “We all know science and the scientific method. I’d like to take advantage of those commonalities and create or invigorate a departmental environment that will try to take advantage of that to bring us together as much as possible, as often as possible to rediscover our common core.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). “Number of States with High Obesity Prevalence Rises to Sixteen.” https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/s0915-obesity-rate.html
- Khubchandani, J., et al. (2022). Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research and Reviews. “COVID-19 pandemic and weight gain in American adults: A nationwide population-based study.” https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dsx.2022.102392