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November 20, 2008

Exercise physiologist Steps It Up for Pitt walking challenge

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu observed. So, how far can the Pitt Steps It Up activity challenge participants go? How about to the moon?

As the six-week Fitness for Life program winds to a close, the 1,700 participants are closing in on the collective goal of 500 million steps — the equivalent of 250,000 miles, roughly the distance to the moon. That goal was set by David O. Garcia, an exercise physiologist in the School of Education’s Department of Health and Physical Activity.

The bar Garcia set to measure success is based on each participant meeting daily step goals that have increased from 6,500 steps at the start to 10,000 steps per day.

Garcia’s lessons and tips on physical activity and emails of encouragement have been well received among participants, who in turn have responded — more often with comments than questions, he notes. Backed up by the technical skills of Human Resources systems analyst/webmaster Bob Alt, Garcia has been the main contact throughout the challenge.

And he’s had plenty of contact — he estimates he’s communicated individually by email or phone with some 600 of the 1,700 participants since the challenge began. He’s happy to provide the human touch. “I firmly believe people want to have that caring element,” he said, adding, “I’m proud of everybody for what they’re doing.”

Garcia estimates he’s received an average of at least five emails a day from participants expressing how much his messages have helped and motivated them. Their responses motivate and encourage him in return. Citing a recent email in which a participant shared how she got her steps in on an inclement day by walking indoors, he said, “I thought that was really cool. She overcame a barrier. That was really positive.”

Garcia doesn’t merely encourage; he practices what he preaches. Walking is his primary form of exercise, he notes, adding that he’s worn a pedometer to log his daily steps for the past three or four years. “It’s just a way to hold myself accountable,” he said during an hour-long walking meeting (another activity-booster he touts) on a route from his Birmingham Towers office through the streets of the South Side and along the nearby South Side trail that added 6,000 steps to his and a University Times reporter’s pedometer.

Reviewing the six-week challenge, he said its purpose was to increase motivation for all participants — from the most sedentary to the most active, with a goal of getting all to decrease their sedentary time.

The program, the messages and the pedometers themselves all serve as external motivators to supplement the internal motivators (such as a desire to be healthy) that moved participants to sign up for the challenge.

Such external motivators can provide the nudge when the weather’s bad and one might be tempted not to walk. “You think, it’s a bad day out, but I’m participating in this, so I’ve got to get out there,” he noted. Or, as he finds in his own experience, “If I get home at the end of the day and I only have 6,000 steps, I know I really have to get a walk in,” he said.

“It’s a great jumpstart to get people moving.”

Simply taking up the challenge is a big step. “It’s hard to start, but once you get going, the positive feeling of energy is very rewarding,” he said.

But the challenge is winding to a close, winter weather has arrived and the temptation of holiday food soon will be with us all. What’s a walker to do?

First, Garcia said, participants should reward themselves with something external and “feel good about the accomplishment” of the challenge. Perhaps the increased activity warrants a well-deserved new wardrobe in a smaller size.

While his daily emails soon will cease, “Don’t stop your pedometers,” he said. “That is a big motivator in itself.” A good way to keep up the external motivation, he said, is to continue logging steps through America on the Move (’s Pittsburgh community link, then consider joining in a new Pitt weight race scheduled to begin in late January.

While activity, not weight loss per se, has been the focus of the step challenge, the two go hand in hand. “If your overall physical activity starts to drop off and you’re not conscientious about what you’re eating, you’re going to gain weight,” he warns. “You have to make a choice every single day about what type of lifestyle you want to have.”

Garcia notes that the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 minutes or more of moderate intensity exercise most or all days of the week. Moderate intensity means brisk walking — as if you’re late for a meeting. And, to maintain weight loss, 250-300 minutes of exercise per week are needed.

“Don’t put it off because the holidays are coming, or wait until it’s time to make a New Year’s resolution. No telling yourself ‘I’ve done so great I can slack off,’” he said. “It’s not a good idea to relax then try to get back into it.”

When seconds on the mashed potatoes are offered or the goodies start appearing in the office, remember, “The holidays are not a free pass. It’s okay to say no. We don’t do that enough,” he said.

To maintain the momentum, Garcia offers these reminders:

• Make a mantra for yourself. There was a reason for choosing to participate. Don’t let it get forgotten. Make a reminder such as a bookmark with your “why” written on it: “for my kids” or “to be healthier” and keep it in sight.

• For those who’ve lost weight, keeping the “fat pants” someplace visible can be a powerful encouragement.

• Don’t be discouraged by a bad day. “We all have bad days. It’s just one day,” he said.

• Be mindful of your choices and actions.

• Plan ahead: For example, eliminate the treadmill coat hanger by taking the clothes off it, dusting it off and putting it by the TV to walk while you watch. Avoid the temptation of a quick stop for a fast food dinner by planning the week’s menu in advance.

• Work to overcome barriers: It’s cold out? “That’s why we have clothes,” Garcia said. No excuses.

• Remember your problem-solving skills: Identify the barrier, brainstorm and list possible solutions, then pick one and try it. If it doesn’t work, try another.

• Make success possible for yourself: Set small goals to add 500 to 1,000 steps. As you get more active, it becomes easier and motivation increases, he said.

• There’s no need to buy a gym membership. “The best piece of exercise equipment you have is your legs. They’re free. All you need is good shoes.”

• Stay positive: “It’s not what you can’t do, it’s what you can do to make yourself successful,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 7

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