For ministry executives, fitness includes spiritual and physical health

January 15, 2020

Executives take a holistic approach to staying healthy that includes various forms of exercise and mindfulness practices


The start of a new year is often the time when people resolve to ramp up their fitness routines or find ways to better balance their work and home lives. Here's how several executives within Catholic health ministries tend to their physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

Rob Casalou
President and chief executive officer
Trinity Health Michigan & Southeast (U.S.) Regions, Canton, Michigan

w200115_Rob Casalou_headshotRob Casalou doesn't pressure his colleagues to join his cycling team, but he's not shy about mentioning to them that he has a few extra uniforms. "Once in a while I'll get a taker," says Casalou.

He is always eager to expand the team, already more than 55 members strong. Team members are regulars in the 300-mile, three-day Wish-A-Mile ride, the major fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Michigan. Casalou's on the board of the nonprofit, which raises money to grant the wishes of critically ill children.

Casalou, 60, says he started cycling more than 15 years ago; fitness has always been a priority for him. "I consider it vital to good mental health, not just physical health," he says.

w200115_Rob CasaloIn college, he played rugby. For years after that, he was a competitive racquetball player until a shoulder injury made him hang up his racquet.

That's when he bought his first road bike and fell in love with cycling. These days he also runs, but he spends 10-12 hours a week pedaling, and more when the weather is good.

"There's no better place to pray, there's no better place to kind of get in touch with God than when you're on your bike on a country road with miles ahead of you and you can clear your mind," he says.

Casalou believes any executive, no matter how demanding that person's schedule, can and should make time for fitness. "If it's a priority, like anything else that's a priority, whether it's the job or the family, you will make time for it," he says.

Video: A Journey to Better Health with Rob Casalou

Laura Kaiser
President and chief executive officer
SSM Health, St. Louis

Kaiser_Laura_150Laura Kaiser was an active kid. She swam, rode her bike for fun, and ran track in high school. At the suggestion of her father, she decided to try a triathlon.

Kaiser's father, a competitive marathon runner, was there to cheer her on at that first race in 1983. She has since competed in dozens of the combination running, cycling and swimming events. These days, however, she usually opts for the sprint triathlons with half the distances of the standard ones. "And I do way more walking than running anymore," Kaiser says.

Kaiser, 58, has stuck to her fitness regimen despite having had hip replacement surgery about six years ago. Her routine includes lifting weights and, in more recent years, stretching and yoga to keep herself limber.

w200115_Laura Kaiser_3She quips that one reason she stays active is: "I'm nicer when I exercise." She's been blessed with good health and energy, which she uses in her work and in the pursuit of well-being.

For Kaiser, exercise is just one aspect of overall wellness. The others are spiritual, intellectual, social and emotional. "If you have all of those in balance, you can be pretty centered," she says. "When one of those gets out of balance, things start clanking, at least I feel that."

She starts her day early with a daily prayer and devotional while she's on her exercise bike. That time for exercise and prayer is a part of her routine she never misses, although sometimes it can be as brief as 10 minutes. Other pieces of her wellness routine have to be scheduled within her busy day, and she's careful to see that they are.

Maintaining optimal physical and mental well-being requires being mindful to carve time out for self-care. Her advice? "I would say schedule it and be unrelenting. You have a responsibility to be your best self in order to fulfill your life's work."

Dr. JP Valin
Executive vice president and chief clinical officer
SCL Health, Broomfield, Colorado

w200115_JP Valin head shotDr. JP Valin thinks it is essential for people in high-stress health care jobs to maintain a healthy work/life balance. "Having an outlet where you can decompress and reconnect with the broader world and yourself is really important."

Valin, 49, views fitness as a critical part of that balance. He pursues it in a variety of ways, including running, biking and downhill and back country skiing near his home in Boulder, Colorado. For the last three years his favorite fitness pursuit has been rowing, a sport he took up after his sons joined a team while in high school.

"I love the fact that it's total body," Valin says. "It's arms and legs but also your mind has to be in it."

w200115_JP Valin 1In the warmer months, he's up early twice a week to row before heading to work. "Doing it at 5:30 in the morning as the sun's rising over the mountains and the reservoir is totally peaceful and the water is still, there's something calming and transfixing," Valin says. "It's just a great way to start the day."

Most often his only goal when rowing is serenity. On weekends, he sometimes enters solo or quad boat competitions.

Valin also pursues spiritual health through mindfulness and meditation. Those practices, he says, give him "an opportunity to reflect on my personal priorities as well as my broader role" in SCL Health's ministry.

He encourages everyone on his clinical team to find outlets outside of work that bring physical, intellectual and spiritual fulfillment.

Finding the right mix will pay off professionally and personally, he says: "You'll wake up and say, 'I do feel better, I do feel more balanced, I feel more resilient.'"

Peter Powers
Chief executive officer
St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, Colorado, part of CommonSpirit Health

w200115_Peter Powers head shotFor Peter Powers, getting regular exercise is a must.

"No matter how busy I am, I always feel so much better after I exercise," says Powers, 40. "It helps me think clearly and deal with stress. It's very much a part of my daily routine, whether I have to wake up extra early or work out extra late."

His favorite means of staying fit are cycling and running. And when he can exercise outdoors, the beauty of the mountains feeds his spirit. "It's not just the fitness piece, it's the body, mind, spirit of being out on the trails and being connected with the outdoors," he says.

He added swimming to his regimen so he could compete in triathlons.

w200115_Peter Powers 2 (Loveland Pass)These days he estimates he puts in eight-10 hours a week on the trails or, if need be, on the treadmill or exercise bike. He still enters the occasional race, but now his fitness regimen is more about his overall wellness. In the past year, he's also added the martial art of Brazilian jui-jitsu.

Powers hopes his commitment to fitness inspires his colleagues and community members to prioritize their health.

"I think we, as health care leaders, should model the behaviors we are trying to encourage in others," he says. "I am a firm believer that diet and exercise would almost eliminate the health care cost crisis overnight if we were serious about prevention and wellness."

Kat Nelson
Chief quality officer
Mercy, east region, St. Louis

w200115_Kat Nelson head shotAt 46, Kat Nelson joined the Mercy Fit Club, hoping the community of runners would inspire her to finish her first 5K. It worked, and not just well, but phenomenally so for Nelson.

After completing that first 5K eight years ago, she upped her exercise game considerably.

She resumed the cycling she had given up years ago and added it to a workout regimen that included endurance swimming to prepare for a sprint triathlon — a 0.465-mile swim, 3.1-mile run and 12.5-mile bike ride. "The feeling of accomplishment of crossing that finish line was like nothing else," Nelson recalls of her first of many triathlons.

As she was turning 50, she cranked her workout up another notch and entered her first half-ironman, a competition with a 1.2-mile swim, a 13.1-mile run and a 56-mile bike ride. In fall 2019, she went to Waco, Texas, to compete in her fourth.

w200115_Kat Nelson 8"Really, from that Fit Club on, I have added this to my life," Nelson says. "It really has changed in many ways how I live life. It's given me a lot of benefits that I didn't know I would experience."

One of those benefits is an overall sense of well-being. And that feeling, she says, is bolstered when she is able to run or cycle in the woods or as the sun is rising or setting. Working out in a natural setting makes her mindful of being part of something much bigger than herself.

Through her training, she says she's forged strong social connections to workout partners -- people whom she otherwise might have never known save for the shared pursuit of fitness.

Nelson says she competes to challenge herself to reach a new time or distance milestone or to test her skills in a new setting. "It's really about your own personal best," she says.

Michael Bezney
Chief legal officer
Bon Secours Mercy Health, Cincinnati

w200115_Michael Bezney head shotFor Michael Bezney, one key to staying in shape has been to surround himself with the right people. Those include his executive assistant, who holds his lunch hour sacrosanct so he can spend it at the gym lifting weights, and his wife, who he says "drags me on hikes."

Bezney, 55, also credits a random encounter for one of his longtime fitness channels. He'd just started law school at the University of Pennsylvania and was sitting at a bar with his fiancé (now wife), when three big men approached to ask whether he was a Penn student. One asked his weight. "I said '260' and they said 'Good, we need someone for the rugby team.'"

w200115_Michael BezneyAlthough he'd never played rugby in his life, Bezney got drafted on the spot and ended up playing the sport through three years of law school and well beyond, until arthritis in his shoulders made it too painful.

When the pain got so bad that he needed both shoulders replaced, Bezney says the first orthopedic surgeon he saw told him he'd have to give up weight lifting, his workout of choice at the time. Instead, Bezney went to a surgeon whose patients included members of the Cincinnati Bengals football team. "He said, 'I'll have you back in the gym in three months,' and he did," Bezney recalls.

After his shoulder replacements, Bezney added boxing and mixed martial arts to his fitness routine for a few years. But now he mostly sticks with the weights, and those occasional hikes with his wife in the Colorado mountains, where they have a getaway place.

Bezney says fitness is a component of holistic well-being. His training regimen bolsters him physically, mentally and spiritually and helps him cope with life's demands.

He considers himself fortunate to work for a company where employees can openly nurture their spirituality during the work day through prayer and reflections. "There aren't many places left in the U.S. where you can be a spiritual person at work," he says.

Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM
CHA president and chief executive officer, St. Louis

Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, traces her love of being physically active back to her childhood, when she played outdoor games with her brothers and neighborhood pals.

"I didn't see it as fitness, I was just having fun with my friends," says Sr. Mary, 61. Those fun and games helped mold a formidable athlete, who played on the field hockey and softball teams in college and for years afterward. "Although I no longer engage in organized sports, I keep active in other ways through walking, weights and stretching," she says. "In the winter months, at the end of the day you'll find me in the office fitness room."

But she'd prefer not to do her exercising in a workout room. "I enjoy outdoor activities," she says. "Nature feeds me."

Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, right, on a hiking trip to Arizona with her lifelong friends.

Indoors or out, she says exercise helps her manage stress and the physical demands of a packed travel schedule, as she attends meetings and calls on CHA members during her inaugural year in the association's top post.

"I start my day with prayer and end it with some form of exercise," she says. "Both experiences are needed for me to stay centered and to be mentally sharp."

Attention to nutrition figures in too. Her kale salads are a trademark of her brown-bag lunches in the CHA employee dining room.

Staying fit, Sr. Mary says, has to be a personal priority, because there will always be competing claims on time. "Someone once told me that I needed to schedule time for myself, so I encourage others to make an appointment with yourself," she says. "Put time on your calendar in order to ensure you have time for what you need."

John Jurczyk
Senior vice president of Covenant Health, president of St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua, New Hampshire

w200115_John_Jurczyk_Headshot_1_Last-No-Photo-ActiveOne of the reasons John Jurczyk loves his job is that it offers plenty of variety. "You could never be bored," he says.

He also relishes variety in his workouts, and he says that's why he came to appreciate having a personal trainer who crafts an ever-changing mix of exercises for him.

"I used to work out without a trainer," Jurczyk says. "I would find a routine and I would just stick to it and do that routine every time I went to the gym for years and years and I would be disappointed with the results."

Jurczyk, 57, says the trainer he has worked with since 2014 changes up his cardio and weight-training workouts in ways that are interesting, challenging and appropriate for his fitness level. His workouts keep him energized and provide an outlet for the stress and anxiety inherent in a demanding job, helping him stay mentally healthy. His schedule doesn't allow him to spend 12 hours working out every week as he once did, but he still squeezes in three hour-long sessions with his trainer.

Despite being a gym regular for a decade, Jurczyk calls himself a latecomer to fitness. He long struggled with his weight, the result of a childhood diet heavy on meat and starches and low on vegetables and fruit. He's come to see exercise, a healthy diet and sleep as key to ensuring that he has the energy and clarity to meet the demands of his job as a servant leader.

Jurczyk says he derives spiritual wellness from pursuing the ministry's mission. "It is very rewarding," he says. "It propels me."

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