We all know that the College of Charleston staff and faculty will take every step necessary to go the distance for our students. But the 46 CofC employees who together walked the equivalent of traversing the United States more than seven times last academic year really stepped it up – this time for their health.

As participants in the third Annual AEX Step Challenge, these “CofC steppers” took a total of 91,828,522 steps between August 1, 2018, and April 30, 2019, averaging 1.9 million steps each.

Michelle Futrell ’92, director of the Center for Academic Performance and Persistence and senior instructor of nutrition in the Department of Health and Human Performance, first developed the Academic Experience (AEX) Step Challenge in the fall of 2016 as a healthy, fun, motivation-boosting activity for her colleagues within the Office for the Academic Experience.

“The whole idea was to promote wellness,” says Futrell, a certified athletics trainer with a background in sports medicine and wellness. “So, health and wellness is something that’s near and dear to my heart. This gave me the opportunity to connect to my first love and to help other people at the same time.”

Starting with 22 people in 2016, the AEX Step Challenge took off from there – with the number of participants more than doubling. Now with two challenges every year – the Summer AEX Challenge running from May 1 to July 31 and the Annual AEX Challenge from August 1 to April 30 – the challenges aren’t just about putting one foot in front of the other anymore.

Kristen Hua ’07 earned the Golden Shoe Award for the most overall steps in the third Annual AEX Step Challenge (Photo by Erin Blevins)

“Physical wellness is a marker of our overall wellbeing, but the physical is just one little piece of this,” says Futrell (pictured above, front, center). “That’s why we incorporate the different wellness challenges – mindfulness, sleep, nutrition, hydration. These are all small steps that we can take toward healthier lifestyles, and the idea is to build healthier habits, one step at a time.”

And so, every Monday, challenge participants log not just their steps, but their points for the different wellness challenges – which forces them to pay attention to their habits and evaluate what needs to be tweaked. Futrell also sends weekly emails with a summary of the last week’s top steppers, along with words of encouragement and some healthy tips and tasks for the following week’s bonus challenge.

“No two challenges are exactly the same. They are all carefully designed to exercise both the mind and the body,” says College of Charleston Registrar Mary C. Bergstrom ’90  (pictured above, front, left), who first joined the AEX Step Challenge in 2017. She adds that, no matter what the challenge is, she always gets three things out of each. “First, motivation: The motivation that comes with these challenges is contagious. Second, accountability: I know that every Monday morning my inbox will contain an inspirational email from Michelle providing shout-outs to the top steppers, offering healthy food or cognitive tips and prompting me to enter my steps for the previous week. And third, stress reduction: You would be surprised how much a short walk can make a difference in a challenging day!

“A Chinese proverb often associated with Lao-Tzu states, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,’” Bergstrom continues. “For me, these challenges have always helped me take that initial step, even during the most stressful times.”

“It has become a terrific stress reliever for me. I walk to ‘get rid of stuff,’ and when I am through for the day, the stuff is gone!” agrees Evie Nadel, executive director of community relations in the Office of the President and institutional ombudsperson, who went from never walking anywhere before she joined the challenge three years ago to earning a spot as first runner-up in the third annual challenge, with a total of 4,146,189 steps. Since she started walking with the AEX Step Challenges, her cholesterol has dropped 22 points and she just feels good.

She’s not alone.

Evie Nadel was the first runner-up in the third annual challenge, with a total of 4,146,189 steps. (Photo by Erin Blevins)

“At this point, I’m the healthiest that I’ve been since I had my 2 year old,” says Kristen Hua ’07, assistant registrar for registration and course/academic events scheduling, who won the third (2018–19) Annual AEX Challenge Golden Shoe Award for the most overall steps (4,444,177 total). “The challenge motivates me to keep my goals and to push myself to obtain the results that I want.”

“These challenges help me consciously set aside time to exercise and avoid distractions that interfere with achieving my step goal,” agrees Bergstrom. “No matter where you are in your fitness style or plan, there is a place for you in these challenges.”

And there’s a place for you in the CofC steppers community, too.

“The challenge is a support system. Some say that they need a friend to work out and keep them motivated. The challenge sort of keeps me accountable,” says Hua, who first started with the 2018 Summer AEX Challenge. “There is a camaraderie, and I’ve gotten to meet new people on campus that I would not have met otherwise.”

Even though the challenges are largely up to the individual, participants have worked in teams and are encouraged to connect for group activities. And, at the end of every challenge, they come together to celebrate their accomplishments – whether it’s over pizza, breakfast or even trivia.

“I think it’s always important that you recognize your hard work,” says Futrell, who awards the Golden Shoe Award at the culmination of every challenge. “Even if it is a cheap, lousy plastic trophy, it’s something! But the real prize is just getting together and supporting each other. I love seeing everyone building these bridges across campus and seeing so many people excited about their personal health goals and feeling supported while they engage in something healthy and morale boosting. It’s really inspiring.”

The fourth Annual AEX Step Challenge begins August 1 and will feature competition against other participants who cover a similar number of steps each week as well as monthly wellness challenges and bonus group activities. All participants must be a CofC faculty or staff member and must have a way to track their steps (a limited number of pedometers are available). Other than that, they just need to commit to submitting their steps on a weekly basis and a willingness to encourage other participants.

“We spend a large portion of our lives at work. Let’s use some of that time to develop and maintain healthy lifestyles through these workplace wellness challenges,” says Bergstrom. “Calling all shapes and sizes! Calling all levels of fitness: If you want to meet new people, engage with old friends, reduce stress, learn about healthy habits, reach new goals and celebrate achievements while tracking your steps with amazing co-workers, then this is for you!”

Feeling motivated to step it up? Sign up today!