- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

DENVER (AP) — When the choir rises, Lucille Johnson’s heart burns with faith and she feels herself pulled down the path of righteousness as fast as her sneakers will carry her.

“Order my steps in your word, dear Lord,” their voices surge, repeating one of contemporary gospel’s popular hymns. “Guide my feet in your word. Show me how to walk in your word.”

Miss Johnson smiles down at the tiny $20 plastic monitor clipped to her skirt. The pedometer reads “31,995,” documenting the number of steps she has taken in a week. It adds up to nearly 13 miles.

Miss Johnson, 48, is one of 150,000 people in Colorado in a program determining whether modest physical effort will prevent weight gain — recognized as America’s second-leading cause of preventable death behind smoking.

On Thursday, the pedometer program expands nationally. Its founders hope to have 1 million people signed up for “America on the Move.” They will begin walking at least 2,000 additional steps a day, about a mile, to burn 100 calories.

They also will trim 100 more calories a day from their diets.

Miss Johnson, who directs health programs for the Metro Denver Black Church Initiative, started wearing a pedometer more than a year ago. When she increased her daily walking to about 10,000 steps, she lost more than a dozen pounds and cut back her hypertension medicine.

Now she considers the paths of health and redemption to be intertwined. “It’s the same as the Gospel,” she said. “God doesn’t care where you are when you start. You will reap the reward.”

Mixing religion with science makes most researchers acutely uncomfortable, but it’s a message that resonates in Miss Johnson’s community. She has distributed 1,600 pedometers to extra-large parishioners in 32 black churches in Denver.

Colorado is America’s leanest state, but even its obesity rate has more than doubled since 1990 to 14.9 percent.

“I looked in the mirror and I didn’t see the girl I used to be,” Miss Johnson said. “I started walking, and things started to shift around. I’ve dropped a couple of sizes.”

Can such a modest plan lasso a lumbering nation?

Results from the Colorado walking effort are being submitted to scientific journals.

Over 16 weeks, 85 percent of all participants raised their activity levels by 2,000 to 2,500 steps a day, researchers say. But it will take a year to see whether they stabilize, or even lose pounds, and it will take several years to see whether the weight loss is sustained.

Like the Colorado experiment, only a fraction of America on the Move participants nationwide will be enrolled in a supervised study. Others can follow the same recommendations independently by registering on the program’s Web site.

James Hill, the program’s co-founder, said it is the first effort at systematically studying “how you stop obesity from getting worse.”

“Our idea is dirt simple,” said Mr. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. “If it doesn’t work, we’re in big trouble as a nation.”

Statistics suggest we already are.

Obesity-related ailments cost $117 billion to treat, and contribute to 300,000 deaths annually, federal estimates show.

Two out of three adult Americans are overweight, the government says, and they are gaining nearly 2 pounds every year. A quarter of them get virtually no exercise.


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