Road Bowlers ask: What’s your motivation to exercise?

Participants in walking competition drop pounds, inspire their kids and recover from heart attack

By Malorye Branca

UMass Medical School Communications

November 05, 2012
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Survey Operations phone interviewer Heather Leveille, Linette Vazquez, project director Carla Hillerns and Survey Research analyst Pei-Pei Lei, who all work for the Office of Survey Research, walk around the Shrewsbury campus.

If on a cold day this winter, you see a guy in shorts and a T-shirt, wearing a weighted vest and walking briskly around the Ambulatory Care Center, don’t be shy about asking him what he’s doing. “I want people to ask, because I’m trying to spread the word about this,” said Steve  Kurtz, a biostatistician in the Department of Quantitative Health Sciences.

Kurtz is referring to his newfound passion for exercise and healthy living, including perhaps his most surprising new habit—taking cold baths and dressing for summer in the winter to burn more calories. He got the idea from an intriguing scientific abstract and a related theory about how Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps stokes his amazing metabolism. It’s not just all that swimming, but the cool water that allows Phelps to eat 12,000 calories a day, the theory goes. That’s why Kurtz is planning to try the “under-dressed walks” this winter. “I think the cold baths are already really helping,” he said.

An admitted “crazy walker,” Kurtz has lost 30 pounds since the beginning of the summer. He was already carrying big rocks in his back pack, walking instead of taking the Spag’s shuttle and hiking “at a beautiful spot near my house” on the weekends. But he began exercising even more when he became one of the 70 UMMS team leaders in this fall’s Road Bowl, a four-week exercise competition among the 12 schools of the Worcester Consortium of Colleges (WCOC), which ended Oct. 26. A total of 195 teams competed, and more than 300 of the participants were from UMMS, including the winning team “Sneaker Pimps,” whose members covered the equivalent of more than 1,700 miles during the competition.

The Road Bowl is an annual event and usually takes place in the fall. Teams of up to five people join together and track their activity levels using pedometers, provided by Fallon Community Health Center, and charts that convert other types of exercise, such as Zumba or yard work, into measureable steps. Each participant logs their steps on the event website, which also provides encouragement and the opportunity to “friend” other participants and comment on the experience. This is the third year UMMS Human Resources, Diversity and Inclusion has administered the WCOC/Fallon-sponsored event.

Some Road Bowlers, like Kurtz, see the event as a great way to fire up their regular workout for a few weeks. But most are also trying to make regular exercise a part of their lives. “I’ve been overweight all my life,” Kurtz said. His father was overweight, and many members of his family are “born with a voracious appetite,” he said. He’s lost weight before, but this time he hopes it will stick. “I’m mainly eating raw foods, and exercising a lot more. I get ideas from a lot of people, like one of the valets who is also a personal trainer, and colleagues.”

Other participants, such as team leader Linette Vazquez, use the competition to start up an exercise habit. A survey operations supervisor at the Center for Health Policy and Research, Vazquez had been meaning to start exercising for years as she watched her family members struggle with obesity-related health problems. “Everyone in my family is big, and half of them have heart disease, high blood pressure and they never do anything for themselves,” she said.

But it was concern for her children that finally prompted Vazquez to use the Road Bowl as a way to launch a better lifestyle. “I’m overweight and if I don’t watch out, my kids could end up like their mother, and grandmother and so many of my family,” she said.

“Before, I literally only walked from my car to the door of my office,” Vazquez said. Her goal for the Road Bowl was three walks a week with her teammates, and then more walking on the weekends with her children. “Having the team was great,” she said. “I’m the leader, but sometimes even I didn’t feel like walking, so we motivated each other.” Since the competition ended, she’s kept up walking mainly at home. Vazquez admitted it’s not just about health. “I am 36 years old, and I don’t want to be big and looking like this at age 40.” But her children are the key, and while her older daughter is already fit and athletic, Vazquez has been thrilled that her younger daughter and son are also now walking more.

Cathy Sampson may have the most important reason for staying fit. A project coordinator at Commonwealth Medicine, she participated because she suffered a heart attack in April and had just finished up cardiac rehabilitation when she heard about the Road Bowl. The event seemed like a good way to keep doing what she’d just been trained to do.

“It was pretty daunting, because I actually had the heart attack while out on a walk,” Sampson said. Like many women, her symptoms were not what you usually think of as the warning signs of a heart attack. “Men typically have this crashing chest pain,” she said. “I was short of breath, very hot and flushed. It took a while for me to feel any chest pain.”

Unable to reach her husband by cell phone, she ended up walking the whole way back home, stumbling and repeatedly stopping. Her husband then drove her to Falmouth Hospital. “I was astonished when they said I was in the middle of a heart attack,” she said. Just a month before she had experienced similar symptoms, and been cleared after a doctor’s visit and a stress test. “So when it happened again, I kept thinking it must be an anxiety attack, or something else,” she said.

That day, Sampson was transferred to Cape Cod Hospital for treatment, and later did her cardiac rehab at UMass Memorial Medical Center. Although she was health conscious to begin with, Sampson is now determined to improve.

“I was walking and I was eating pretty healthy,” she said. “But there was a lot more I could have been doing. For example, I was careful about fat and carbs but I didn’t pay any attention to sodium.” Her tastes have changed as a result of her stricter diet, and now she admits she’s sometimes shocked by others’ eating habits. “Now it’s really strange to watch people who are essentially living on white bread, soda and other junk food,” she said.

When she needs to motivate herself to walk, she thinks about all the progress she has made in rehab. “I tell myself that I do not want to slip back,” Sampson said. While she was active, Sampson had never been one to exercise vigorously enough to push up her heart rate. Now, she’s setting higher goals.

The Road Bowl winners will be honored at an awards ceremony tonight. It sounds cliché, but even though none of these Road Bowl team leaders was a member of the triumphant “Sneaker Pimps,” they all consider themselves winners. “This is a great motivator, and I had fun participating,” Sampson says. “For a while there, I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the courage to exercise again.”