Walk Away the Pounds Without Breaking a Sweat

Move closer to fitness just by stepping up your daily routine

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

We know we need to get moving.

After all, some 61% of adults in this country are overweight, according to the Surgeon General, and some 300,000 deaths a year are linked to obesity. The National Academy of Sciences has recommended that we get an hour of physical activity every day to lose weight (30 minutes for maintenance). The Centers for Disease Control and other organizations say we need to exercise for at least 30 minutes, several days a week.

But we just can't seem to get ourselves in gear.

"Where we are as America right now is on the couch," said Shellie Pfohl, executive director of Be Active North Carolina, a program that promotes exercise in that state.

Something has to change, health officials and educators say. Some think the key is to make exercise so easy that we barely notice we're doing it -- as easy as adding extra steps to our daily routines.

"The average person is gaining one to two pounds a year," says James O. Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. Hill believes the reason most Americans aren't getting any healthier is because they're trying to change their habits so dramatically that it sets them up for failure.

"We've been asking people to make big changes," like cleaning out the cupboards and replacing them with healthy foods or joining a health club, he tells WebMD. "People can't do that. Big changes don't fit their lifestyle."

Led by health educators like Hill and Pfohl, step-counting programs are sprouting up around the country. The way these programs work is simple: Buy a pedometer (available for $25 to $35) to track the number of steps you take in a day; wear the pager-sized device from morning to bedtime for three days, logging your steps at the end of each day; then figure out how many steps you're averaging per day, and work to increase that amount.

The pedometer makes people aware of exactly how much activity they're getting, says Pfohl. Her agency has an online walking program called Active Steps, in which participants can log their daily steps, receive weekly tips, and get feedback from other members.

"Allowing a person to see how active or inactive they are makes them want to make changes," she tells WebMD.

Step-counting programs are catching on because research has found that people can get health benefits from physical activity even if it isn't done all at once, or at any particular pace, says Susan Johnston, vice president and director of education and certification at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas.

Some of these programs encourage participants to aim for a specific number of steps per day. For example, Shape Up America, an organization founded by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, has the 10,000 Step Program. Its premise is that walking about 10,000 steps (approximately 5 miles) a day is the optimum figure for managing your weight.

That figure may sound daunting, Johnson says, but consider this: "Most people get 3,000 to 5,000 steps a day just being sedentary. You get half of it just living." As for the rest, you can increase your distance gradually, in small increments, as your health improves.

Other groups forego specific numbers of steps in favor of having people make more modest increases in their activity levels. Hill and his colleagues created Colorado on the Move, a community-based pedometer program designed to get people to add steps to their day without making big lifestyle changes.

"Everything counts," Hill says. "A step is a step as far as we're concerned."

But can these extra steps really help people walk away the pounds, even if they're not breaking a sweat?

"Yes, they can," says Richard Cotton, an exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. "Because in comparison to what they've been doing in the past, it quite possibly can create a caloric deficit -- as long as they don't increase their eating."

"Where we are as America right now is on the couch."

For example, he says, "if adding steps allows you to burn an extra 300 calories a day, every 10 to 15 days, that's a pound."

Even expending an extra 100 calories a day -- the equivalent of walking one mile or 2,000 steps -- will take 10 pounds off in a year, says Lisa Cooper, fitness director of the Little Rock Athletic Club in Little Rock, Ark.

Adding steps to your life brings other health benefits as well, according to new research coming in.

"You actually lose fat around your middle," says Hill. And as your waist circumference decreases, he says, so does your risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease.