BU Today

Health & Wellness

Winning the Losing Game

Part eight: The gain, the pain, and how to walk it off

Backpacking with a 20-pound pack burns approximately 540 calories per hour. Photo by Emily Douglas

A few weeks ago, I ran into a coworker who had obviously lost a lot of weight. “You look fantastic!” I told her. “How did you do it?”

“Chasing after her,” she replied, nodding toward her three-pound Yorkshire terrier.

Great, I thought. I’ve spent the last three and a half months at the gym, sweating buckets, and I’ve lost only five pounds. My friend gets a dog and drops nearly 20. Life isn’t fair. I admit that I have flirted, briefly, with the idea of trading in Edward, my 18-pound cat, for a puppy, but I know I’d miss him too much. So, it’s back to the gym I go. I remind myself that once summer break arrives, I will no longer have to fight the undergrads for the elliptical machines. That cheers me up a bit.  

That same evening while I was walking home, I got to thinking about different weight loss plans. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. Since I began writing this series, I’ve received fitness advice from a personal trainer, a nutritionist, a physical therapist, friends, family members, colleagues, and quite a few readers. Each person suggests something different; sometimes their recommendations help and sometimes they don’t. That’s the beauty, as well as the frustration, of fitness programs. There is no one-size-fits-all. In fact, after weeding through all the diet books and weight-loss Web sites and professional opinions, I’ve found only one consistent piece of advice: if you want to lose weight, you have to move.

That might seem like a no-brainer, but the sad reality is that every year, Americans move less and less. Demanding desk jobs (hello, editors at BU Today) and long car-bound commutes consume much of our lives, while modern conveniences such as cars, elevators, and fast-food drive-throughs make it possible to go an entire day without breaking a sweat. That’s what we invented them for, after all. Add into the mix our penchant for Big Macs and chili cheese fries, and it’s no wonder that obesity ranks as one of the top killers in the United States.

So, how exactly should we move? Most physicians recommend walking at least five miles, or 10,000 steps, a day. Happily, all of those steps do not have to be taken consecutively, and every step counts — even those leading to the refrigerator. But the number of steps taken by the average American, including many BU employees, falls well short of 10,000. “At BU,” says certified nutritionist Stacey Stimets, “we’ve found that the average adult walks between 1,500 and 6,000 steps a day.”

I was curious about how many steps I take in a day, so at Stimets’ urging, I started to wear a pedometer. The model I chose calculates my steps, aerobic steps, the numbers of calories I burn, and the distance I travel. It turns out that on days I go to the gym, I walk about 16,000 steps, or eight miles. On days that I don’t go, I average less than half that much. And walking to work instead of biking adds 4,000 steps.

“I like pedometers because they establish a baseline of activity for all individuals, regardless of where they’re starting,” Stimets says. “If you’re walking only 1,500 steps a day, and then you make an effort to walk 3,000, you’re doubling your level of activity, and you will see health benefits.”

It so happens that BU is an excellent place to walk, because the campus is so expansive. The distance from Kenmore Square to West Campus alone is a mile. And on a day that I have an interview at the College of Arts and Sciences, a physical therapy appointment at the Ryan Center for Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, and a personal training session at the FitRec Center, I walk 2.1 miles. How do I know this? I calculated the distance on a helpful Web site called Gmaps Pedometer. Here, anyone can map out a route — for walking, running, or biking — and calculate its distance. If you are walking, Gmaps Pedometer will even tell you how many calories you’ve burned.

For people who are relatively inactive, walking is a great activity to consider, but it’s certainly not the only one that will lead to a healthier lifestyle. Every activity — in fact, every type of movement, even brushing your teeth (for those interested, it burns three calories a minute) — requires an expenditure of energy, and any energy expenditure burns calories. So the next time you climb a flight of stairs, remember that for every minute you’re cursing yourself for not having taken the elevator, you are burning seven calories. That may not sound like a great return on investment, but for someone like me, who works on the third floor and who’s up and down the stairs at least 10 times a day, it adds up pretty quickly.

I also use up a fair amount of calories riding my bike — my customary means of transportation to and from work. According to a handy chart that I found online, my 10-minute commute to work burns 45 calories. Multiply that number by four (I often bike home for lunch), and I’ve burned 180 calories on my commute alone.  

Here’s a suggestion: find an activity that you like — dancing or Rollerblading or playing soccer — and try doing it for an hour a day. One of my favorite activities is backpacking, which, I have learned, uses approximately 477 calories per hour. And because I am currently training for a three-day benefit hike, most of my weekends are spent climbing mountains carrying a 20-pound pack — bumping hourly calorie burn up to 540. I may not be huffing and puffing at the gym, but I’m getting quite a workout.  

One of the more encouraging equations I’ve come across in my fitness quest states that every extra 10 calories burned in a day, every day, equals a pound of body weight at the end of the year. So theoretically, at least, if you burn 100 extra calories a day by walking an additional 2,000 steps, you will lose 10 pounds by the end of the year. “Keep in mind that while 10 pounds is a lot to lose all at once,” Stimets warns, “over one year, it doesn’t even average out to losing a pound a month. So don’t become discouraged when you don’t see instant results.”  

Like losing weight itself, I have noticed, this not-becoming-discouraged thing is easier said than done. When I enrolled in a personal training program at the end of January, I weighed 155 pounds. Today, I weigh 150. My goal was to lose 19 pounds by the end of May. It’s not going to happen. Despite regular visits to the gym that involve cardiovascular and strength conditioning workouts, weekly sessions with personal trainer Stephanie McNamara (SED’07), and serious changes in my diet, I have not come close to my goal. I try to remain positive by reminding myself that I am stronger than I’ve ever been and I’m wearing clothes that were too tight in December, but it’s hard to ignore the numbers on the scale. Fortunately, Stimets puts it in perspective.  

“We wish the scale told us how fat we are, but it doesn’t,” she tells me. “It only measures our weight, and weight is water and muscles and bones and fluid fluctuation. If you’ve lost five pounds of fat but gained three pounds of muscle, that’s not something the scale is going to reflect.”   

More important, Stimets says that losing nearly 20 pounds in four months is not a very realistic goal, particularly for women. “Biologically, women’s bodies just have more fat than men’s, and it’s much harder for women to lose,” she says. “Men tend to be taller and heavier, and they typically have 40 percent more muscle than women, which means they get to eat a lot more to begin with. So if their baseline calorie requirement is 3,200 calories and they want to lose two pounds a week, they can still eat 2,200 calories a day.”

Hrmph. That’s more than I’m supposed to be eating a day to simply maintain my weight. I refuse to let this discourage me. This series may be ending, but my fitness plan will not. In the past four months, I’ve learned a lot about what my body can and cannot do, and quite honestly, I’m pretty amazed at how strong it is. I’ve also acquired some potentially life-changing knowledge: a recipe for long-term fitness and health. I know that as long as I continue to implement everything I’ve learned, my body will continue to become stronger and healthier. So, another year from now, perhaps I’ll have reached that goal of 19 pounds. In the meantime, I think I’ll take a hike.

Thank you to everyone who has offered advice and support these past few months. You’ve made this journey a heck of a lot easier. This series could not have been written without the following individuals: personal trainer Stephanie McNamara (SED’07); nutritionist Stacey Stimets; physical therapist Christopher Cesario (SMG’08); psychotherapist Joanne Pomodoro (SSW’99); the staff of the FitRec Center; my dear friend Jessica Schnall; and my cat, Edward. Thank you also to all of my readers who have shared personal stories, encouragement, jokes, and words of wisdom. Your e-mails got me through many dark days. Best of luck to the Class of 2007. As for everyone else, I’ll see you at the gym. Keep moving!

Fourteen weeks ago, BU Today writer Vicky Waltz began chronicling her four-month quest for fitness. Click here to read the first installment, “One woman’s four-month fitness challenge.” Click here to read the second installment, “After an injury, changing the game.” Click here to read the third installment, “Calories in vs. calories out.” Click here to read the fourth installment, “Glimpsing the gain.” Click here to read the fifth installment, “When seeing is not believing.” Click here to read the sixth installment, “Shape-shifting — how weight training can modernize a Botticelli body.” Click here to read the seventh installment, “You are not what you don’t eat.”

Stay in touch! E-mail Vicky at vwaltz@bu.edu.