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Walk The Healthy Walk

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If Americans would watch their steps, their weight might stop climbing the scales. That's the thinking behind several major efforts to inspire Americans to walk more.

The latest, America on the Move, is a national initiative launching Monday with a straightforward goal: Get millions of people to wear inexpensive step counters and walk an additional 2,000 steps (about 1 mile) a day, or cut out 100 calories.

''If people start making small changes, great things will happen,'' says obesity researcher James Hill, co-founder of the program, which has the support of government and private industry -- including some food giants that sell soft drinks, fruit juices and fast food. That alliance with companies already is drawing criticism from some nutrition experts. And others contend that taking a few extra steps a day will not put a dent in the nation's obesity epidemic.

Almost 65% of Americans are overweight or obese, which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and most types of cancer. Inactivity is considered a major cause of excess weight, and experts behind these walking initiatives believe that it may be easier to get people to move more than to change their eating habits. Among the other recent efforts to encourage more activity:

* Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans, the largest network of insurers, recently launched WalkingWorks, a program to encourage its nearly 89 million subscribers to add brisk walks to their daily routines. They don't get a break on premiums, but they get a free or discounted pedometer.

* Researchers at West Virginia University are encouraging sedentary people ages 50 to 65 to move more through the program Wheeling Walks. The result: About 32% of sedentary middle-aged residents are walking at least 30 minutes a day.

* Colorado on the Move, an initiative unveiled last year by Hill and others, is the pilot program for America on the Move. More than 200,000 Colorado residents have signed on. Like that program, America on the Move ( includes educational material and discounted step counters.

Many other states and cities have walking programs, and lots of community leaders are adding sidewalks, walking trails and parks to make it easier for people to be physically active.

Reaching a goal

For years, the government and obesity experts have been urging Americans to be more active. Federal guidelines advise getting at least 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week, but more than 60% of American adults don't get enough exercise. Last fall, the National Academies' Institute of Medicine raised the bar, recommending at least an hour of daily moderate activity to control weight.

Experts have struggled with ways to help people meet these goals. For years, some researchers and public health officials have encouraged people to walk 10,000 steps a day, roughly five miles.

On average, people walk about 5,310 steps in a day, according to a Harris Interactive online poll conducted for America on the Move.

Getting up to 10,000 steps may seem like a big leap to most people, which is why America on the Move participants are encouraged to begin by adding 2,000 steps a day to what they already are doing, then increasing activity, says Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

Adults are gaining about one to three pounds a year, he says. Walking an extra 2,000 steps or cutting out 100 calories a day ''won't help most people lose much, but these changes should keep them from gaining more,'' Hill says.

Still, not everyone is sold on pedometers. Rather than focusing on step counters, some people would be better off aiming for 30 minutes of activity most days of the week, says Rich Killingsworth, director of the Active Living by Design project for the non-profit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He's selecting 25 communities to be redesigned with more sidewalks, bike paths, trails and parks.

''The pedometers are nice little tools and great gift-bag stuffers, but do they really translate into populationwide behavior change? I'm not convinced they do.

''You pass these things out, and you come back a week or two later, and the vast majority of people are not wearing them,'' he says. ''Plus, they don't capture the activity you get when you bike, swim, row, garden. I lift weights, cycle and try to walk when I can, but I don't come close to 10,000 steps.''

John Peters, co-founder of America on the Move and director of Procter & Gamble's Nutrition Science Institute, believes that participants in the program will be more likely to stick with the program if they have incentives, and the founders are working to implement some of those. For instance, he says, they would like stores to offer discounts to walkers. That would mean when you go into a store, a clerk would give you a step counter. If you take 2,000 steps while shopping, a clerk would give you a 5% discount.

The founders also are working with several corporate sponsors, including PepsiCo, which owns Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Tropicana and Quaker Oats, and Yum! Brands, the parent company for Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell and other chain restaurants. Details on how the companies will be involved are still being worked out.

''We are at an awesome point where private industry is going to help solve the (obesity) problem,'' Hill says.

Others aren't convinced. ''This is wishful thinking,'' says Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. ''Corporations have to put the bottom line first. Experts are deluding themselves if they think corporations care more about health than profits.''

Nestle is in favor of extra walking, but she doesn't believe 2,000 steps will have much impact on weight control. ''It's so easy to overeat by 100 calories.''

Walking as enjoyment

Some people have recently learned the joy of walking. Paula Allen, 55, of Indianapolis, considered herself an ''occasional walker'' and was taking about 4,500 steps a day when in January she got a step counter and instructions from Colorado on the Move.

Allen, who works as a youth volunteer program director, began walking 30 minutes every morning, and sometimes she added a second walk in the afternoon. On the weekends, she walked 1 to two hours each day with a friend. She also added more steps to her day by parking far away from the grocery store entrance and going into the bank instead of using the drive-through. She kept track of her steps in a logbook.

Then she began Latin dancing. ''Even if I only danced for an hour, my steps would skyrocket.'' Before long, her steps tallied 10,000 and sometimes climbed up to 15,000.

Allen wasn't overweight, she says, but she has dropped three or four pounds. ''I have clothes that are too big for me now. I am in better aerobic shape, and my muscles are stronger.''

Other changes are needed

Mark Fenton, one of the nation's leading walking experts and host of the PBS show America's Walking, says that to make the most of a pedometer, people need to record their steps daily.

''If you don't keep a record of the steps you take, the novelty of the pedometer wears off, and you stop wearing it,'' he says. ''But if you keep a record and you increase your steps over time, then you see what you're doing that helps you get the additional 2,000 to 4,000 steps a day.''

Most experts agree that walking more is only one piece of solving the complex problem of obesity.

''Physical activity in and of itself is not going to be enough,'' says Bill Reger, the mastermind behind the Wheeling Walks program and an associate professor of community medicine at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

People are going to have to eat more fruits and vegetables, reduce portion sizes and watch the junk food, he says. ''Eating one Cinnabon at the mall can wipe out several days of physical activity.'' Cover storyCover story

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