How employees challenge one another to stay well

Su Fong, an enthusiastic participant in University wellness challenges, holds this plank for 25 minutes.

By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

Kaeman Mitchell was hospitalized but still got in 12,000 steps a day – in the ward hallway.

Su Fong rises at 2 a.m. to work out for four hours before work – every day.

And Wendy Moreira used meditation and mindfulness exercises to stay calm at work while dealing with the death of a family member from COVID-19.

Wellness challenges among Grand Canyon University and Grand Canyon Education employees have produced inspiring stories of mind, body and spirit.

In each quarterly competition, roughly 500 employees logged their activity online to earn points for exercise and other areas that change with each contest, such as emotional, social, spiritual or financial wellness, said Sara Murray, Wellness Benefits Specialist.

Top point earners win prizes such as gift cards in the contest operated by third-party vendor Wellable, but Murray mixed it up for the May contest that just concluded. The GCU/GCE Be Mindful and Resilient Challenge included random drawings for $150 gift cards to emphasize all avenues of wellness, not just exercise, because it’s been a rough past year of isolation during a pandemic, and employees were encouraged to slow down, be mindful and learn tools to become more resilient, Murray said.

The competition can be fierce, but as these participants show, the result is more than about winning prizes.

Kaeman Mitchell gets out to walk and run often, this time with daughter Kenzie.


Mitchell is a former University of Illinois football player, so he was used to working out with weights and running in short bursts. He was never a long-distance runner. But after arriving at GCU in 2017 as the L.O.P.E.S. For Life Coordinator in Academics and Student-Athlete Development, he hit the road in running shoes and began entering the wellness challenge.

As a Midwesterner, he wondered how people lived here in the heat but now he loves that he can be outside all year, logging those miles. He gets walking and running time in early while his wife and baby are still asleep by taking the baby monitor to listen for crib crying noises.

The challenge also keeps him competing, which he loves. “I think I have not won only twice,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in it, probably too much.”

He checks the online leaderboard for his points before he goes to bed and sometimes decides not to retire but lace on his walking shoes.

Wife: “Really, you are going for a walk now?”

Kaeman: “I’m not in first place.”

That determination was tested earlier this year. A bad stomach virus led to a bowel obstruction, and he was hospitalized for eight days with a nasogastric tube down his nose and into his stomach.

“I had a mask over one nostril and a tube down the other, and I walked down a 40-foot hallway,” he said. “I was getting in 12,000 steps a day.”

It kept him sane.

And that’s the real benefit of staying healthy, he says. Not everyone knocks off an 8-mile run to prepare for an upcoming 14-mile trail race in the mountains for their 30th birthday like Mitchell, but he says 15 or 20 minutes of exercise during a break in day can benefit your overall health.

“More people should do the challenge and not be discouraged by the leaderboard,” he said. “What is cool is it’s good for you, instead of sitting on the couch watching a game.”

But he’s a competitor, no doubt.

“I try not to trash talk Su (Fong); I try to be a gentleman,” he joked about an employee he often battles with for the point lead. “But there were other people that I was more than happy to run my mouth to.”

Su Fong devotes a lot of time to staying fit and healthy.


Fong isn’t taking the bait, either.

“I used to compare myself to other people, but here’s the thing. When you compare yourself to other people, the anger, jealousy and frustration never stops. I kicked that habit,” she said. “I still compare myself but only how I was yesterday.”

She says she has won all but two of the competitions she has entered, long before Wellable took it over a few years ago, and her $250 gift card in the win earlier this year led to free lunch for 12 co-workers at Bobby-Q.

Here’s hoping they enjoyed it, because Fong says she has this routine every morning before her job as an instructional designer in Curriculum Design and Development:

Rise at 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday to do a couple hours of exercises, including weights and – get this – 25 minutes in a plank (think pushup position) before swimming two miles, which some exercise calculators equate to a 10-mile run.

“It’s a heated pool, so during the wintertime it’s like my private resort, nobody is there. The stars are in the sky, it is so surreal, the tranquility is unbelievable,” said Fong, who does the breaststroke and backstroke. “How many people have that opportunity? I feel so blessed every day to be working out. I try to enjoy every moment that I have.”

It’s almost spiritual, and she says her faith has keep her going, sometimes praying for the strength when the alarm goes off.

The exercise routine for the 54-year-old began 25 years ago when she moved to the U.S. from Korea to go to graduate school and felt alone.

“So I started choosing the right habits, making routines to become disciplined,” she said.

“My habit is to choose healthy food and working out. Then it becomes a routine. That is my mantra, ‘choosing the right habit.’"

Fong, who has two master’s and two doctoral degrees, says when you establish a routine, you don’t think if you should work out, you just do it. The vegetables, fruits and fish that she eats are the norm, and anything with refined sugar doesn’t even taste good anymore.

She wants to inspire others, not just to stay physically fit but “to have a healthy balance in life, because a healthy body leads to a healthy mind.”

Wendy Moreira


This university counselor is proof of that, in reverse: Her healthy mind can lead to a healthy body.

She’s endured a lot during the pandemic with her father-in-law dying of COVID, her mother-in-law passing a short time later, and other family health problems.

But being in the challenge and utilizing the online meditation practices and mindfulness seminars has helped manage her mental health.

Recently, she noticed her blood pressure had jumped a bit, so she focused on meditation and listening to a seminar on joy during hard times in the Wellable challenge to bring it down. She also learned about how your thoughts can cause you stress.

“They always say attitude, but it’s more about mindset,” she said. “There is so much negativity you speak to yourself, but having the tools to combat that so it doesn’t bring you down has been so helpful to me.”

Listening to your body and not a negative voice in your head can help, especially when there is extreme stress, such as the deaths of family members this year.

“When you don’t allow circumstances to bring you down but look at ways to deal with those in a healthy way has been so helpful. That is one of the things that mindfulness has helped,” she said.

“Being present, and you are listening to your body and not so much to other noise. Being able to look at things from a different perspective makes a big difference, when you don’t allow that to wear you down and look at things positive.”

She takes meditation breaks and a lot of deep breaths and has learned not to take things personally. She has found it already has changed her conversations with difficult people in her job.

Sara Murray

It's a good reason for employees to stress mental and emotional health and why Murray emphasized it in the challenge after the pandemic hit so many hard.

She’s seen it in her own life. A lifelong exercise guru, when she began focusing on her emotional self, “it turned my life around.”

“You can make yourself as healthy as possible by eating the right things and exercising appropriately, but unless you fix what’s going on in your head, you are never truly going to be present,” she said.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


The May challenge that ended May 31 had employees traveling 76,311 miles and completing 1,476 resilience exercises. The points winner was Phillippa Gaston, who scored 47,037. (Mitchell was 10th and Fong 16th). To see what’s coming next and participate in Wellable challenges, employees can log on here:


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