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Fitness Buffs Find Routes to San Francisco

By Rich McManus

There's a place at NIH where you can meditate for 30 minutes and go 10 miles. At the same place, if you lift weights for 45 minutes, you travel 90 miles. Ten minutes of jumping rope reins in 20 miles. An hour of dancing earns 100 miles.

It's all part of "San Francisco or Bust," a fitness challenge that ran Sept. 13 to Dec. 3 and involved about 100 NIH'ers, all of whom traded fitness/health pursuits for mileage in a theoretical journey from NIH in Bethesda to San Francisco.

Depending on how active they are, participants could choose a direct route of 2,840 miles; a long, circuitous route of 8,020 miles; or a middle-of-the-road, 4,280-mile route, said Bob Caldwell, director of the NIH Fitness Center who has long been associated with NIH, albeit mainly in the role of a YMCA contractor. He recently retired from the YMCA after 30 years, and was most recently president and CEO of the Wilmington, N.C. branch, one of 2,500 Y outlets nationwide. Though he has been with R&W (which runs the Fitness Center) officially for only the past half-year, he notes with pride, "I designed this center 22 years ago as president of the Bethesda Y. I have been involved with this program since its inception."

Participants in the recent "SF or Bust" challenge included (from l) Donna Vogel, Vidmantas Petraitis, Turid Knutsen and Kevin Laser.

The SF or Bust campaign was for Fitness Center members only; there are about 950 members on campus who pay $170 a year to use center facilities and classes. There is also an R&W-run Fitness Center at Rockledge, which has about 750 members who pay $220 yearly.

Though most participants earned their mileage at the two centers, there were some activities that could take place at home. Cutting the lawn, for example, was worth 15 miles. A good night's sleep was worth 10 miles. Exercising your brain with a crossword puzzle was worth 20 miles. "Intimate activity" was worth a measly 10 miles. But an hour of shopping was worth 30 miles.

There was a maximum mileage per week for each of the three distances, so that no over-achieving participant could finish way ahead of the others, Caldwell said. Those who chose the longest route had to average 668 miles per week to reach the Golden Gate by contest's end.

Caldwell was himself a participant — indeed a leader — who gained most of his miles with weight training, but also worked golf and tennis into the mix. Lifting weights yielded the single highest total mileage in the contest: one hour of it gained you 110 miles. By contrast, cooking a "recipe of the month," or "doing a good deed" were only worth 5 miles each.

R&W's Bob Caldwell (l) and Sherrell Freeman stand aside challenge map with participant Cyrus Salazar..

SF or Bust is one of a handful of Fitness Center promotions developed each year. "There are usually at least four per year," said Sherrell Freeman, administrative assistant at the center. The SF challenge was developed by Kirty Dhekar of the Rockledge Fitness Center. Rather cagily, the center tossed in 100 miles to anyone who renewed their Fitness Center membership during the contest.

"The purpose of the San Fran program is to help encourage members to make healthy choices every day, which range from aerobic exercise and weight training to eating a nutritious diet and encouraging an overall well-balanced lifestyle," Dhekar said. "In the real world, offering incentives or rewards for a job well done is a motivational tool. The San Francisco or Bust Challenge is an incentive program designed to increase exercise frequency, improve fitness results and inspire long-term interest in one's well-being."

All efforts were logged by participants, according to the honor system, Caldwell said, and each "traveler" got a chart to map his or her progress. "It was actually a pain in the back to fill it out," he chortled.

Maybe the next promotion can offer mileage for filling out the chart.

Caldwell says the Fitness Center welcomes new members, and can handle more people than are currently enrolled. He noted two limiting factors in membership at Bldg. 31's facility: there are only a handful of the much-coveted cardio workout machines, which members may reserve ahead of time for the usual 30-minute workout. And there are only 6 showers in the center — three each for men and women.

To learn more about the NIH Fitness Center, call either the Bldg. 31 facility at (301) 496-8746 or the Rockledge center at (301) 435-0038.


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