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Off the Couch: Colorado on the Move - 2004-08-29

Many Americans don't get around much, on foot at least, walking only 2,000 steps a day. That's less than 10 minutes of exercise, and this lack of calorie-burning time may be contributing to the nation's obesity epidemic. This has led one health expert to launch a program that started out as "Colorado On the Move."

When physiologist Jim Hill studied American's obesity epidemic, he was troubled by how many researchers focused on what causes Americans to be overweight. He wanted solutions, so these days, he directs the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado's Health Sciences Center.

And now, we're going to talk and walk, while he uses a counting device called a pedometer, which he clips on his belt. "I never leave home without it," he says.

The pedometer looks like the face of a digital wristwatch. Instead of tracking time, though, it counts the number of steps that whoever's wearing it walks, runs, bicycles, tap dances, you name it. Professor Hill calls his pedometer-based program, "On the Move." He suggests that newcomers start by adding an additional 2,000 steps to their daily routines. As a veteran walker, his goal is higher.

"Now, you'll see, this is a big number, because I accumulate steps for a week. And so today is day six of my week. And I go for 11,000 a day, so at the end of today, I should be at 66,000. So we need to have a nice long walk here, and I can collect some more steps," he says.

Most Americans are sedentarythey get little exercise, which may explain why the average American gains a kilo or more, every year. As we stride down the tree-lined street, Professor Hill says weight gain is less likely when people exercise. "The blueprint for the body works best when we're physically active," he says. "It works worst when we're sedentary."

The body also works best when it has proper nutrition and that's a big part of the On The Move program. On the tally forms where people record their weekly step totals are reminders to eat fruits and vegetables.

In Colorado, On the Move has caught on at schools, businesses and community centers.

"We have a lot of people who tend to not like organized walks," says Betty Grauberger, who directs the program at a senior center in the rural town of Evans. "They like to go out on their own, and On The Move is a good program for them because they can record their mileage and they're participating in a group."

Ms. Grauberger says that she's glad the program encourages exercise no matter what a person's body size, and she cites herself as an example. "This chubby body you see in front of you really does walk at 5 AM in the treadmill. You'd think I'd be a size 5, but I'm not."

She says clipping a pedometer onto her skirt or belt helps her do more steps. "One does not realize the amount of steps you take during the day. You think, I'm not doing anything. Y'know? I'm walking to the kitchen or I'm walking to the store, or, I'm walking to whatever you happen to do, and you don't pay any attention and then when you get home and take that off, you go, oh, my god! How many miles did I walk today?"

At the end of a day, she says it's always a treat to take off the pedometer and count the steps. The only hard part is remembering to clip the pedometer back on in the morning. "What I kind of do to help with that is I'll set it by my keys or my wallet, and that's a good reminder," she says.

Ren Bedell has monitored the more than 100 seniors who've participated in the center's On the Move Program. He says most did remember their pedometers, and the tally forms they filled out show a positive result. "Overall it looks like they are increasing their physical activity and they are saying that they're eating more fruits and vegetables," he says.

The public health expert adds that On the Move programs often help participants avoid gaining that typical extra kilo every year. Ms. Grauberger says whether someone's skinny or plump, people who exercise are healthier. "You can improve the quality of your life, just by walking a few more steps or doing a little more," she says.

Back in Denver, plenty of people sit glumly in their cars, getting not a lick of exercise. But I'm striding the sidewalks with Professor Hill, as we return, refreshed, to his office. He checks his pedometer. "Let's see. We were at what, 57-9, we're now at 61-5. 2,600 steps. 3,600 steps!"

Jim Hill's Colorado on the Move program has proven so popular, it has evolved into America on the Move, with more than 800,000 Americans now counting their steps.

National America On the Move Day is November 5, 2004.