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Spirit: Remembering What Matters

Cause and Effect: Getting Fit for Charity

By Sarah Merrill

Where diet books and supplements fail, these events seem to succeed in turning around people's attitudes about exercise.

At age 35, Lori Lown decided that her life was not where she wanted it to be.

"I'd had a hysterectomy in 1996 and let myself gain a lot of weight," explains Lown, "I never got back into shape."

Lown resolved to pick up her life, start over in a new state with a new job, and make the even tougher commitment to her health.

In June of 2000, Lori trained for and completed Tanqueray's American AIDSRideUSA, a charity event created and produced by Pallotta Teamworks, the same organization that created the Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day and the Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride.

Encompassing yearly events in nine U.S. cities, the AIDS Ride has raised roughly 70 million dollars since it began in 1994. It was the California ride — 575 hilly miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles — that finally hooked Lown on exercise.

"I'm very goal-oriented," she explains, "and I figured this would be a big goal."

Pedaling with the Pack

Many first-timers are daunted by the idea of a 500-mile bike ride through hilly terrain, but the AIDS ride Web site hosts an email discussion network, and veteran riders try to assuage fears, assuring beginners that they are not in this alone.

Lori Lown's goal of getting in shape was bolstered by two more objectives: to find a place in a community and to prove that she could finish this challenging event. The support that ultimately allowed Lown to keep focused on her goals came from a worthy cause and a team of organizers who simply would not let her quit.

Lown has since given up smoking and drinking, lost over 40 pounds and indeed, changed her life.

Vital Signs

In recent years, doctors and sports medicine professionals have increasingly pedaled the benefits of a regular fitness routine. They cite health benefits including lowered body fat, more energy, improved sleep patterns and psychological benefits.

And yet, one in every three adults in the United States is considered overweight. This despite the billions of dollars spent annually on diet books, exercise equipment, various supplements and quick fixes.

Dr. Ross E. Anderson, Ph.D., reports in an article for The Physician and Sportsmedicine (October 1999) that a steady increase in obesity in the United States is closely paralleled by a decrease in physical activity.

Over the past several years, charity organizations nationwide have found a way to get Americans moving again, while raising money and increasing awareness of their causes. The number of participants in marathons and charity sporting events like the AIDSRide continues to increase steadily.

Where diet books and supplements fail, these events seem to succeed in turning around people's attitudes about exercise.

Getting behind a cause

Especially for beginners, who may find it difficult to keep up a fitness regimen, charity events offer a built-in support system. Participants can join events with other friends and family, or meet new people; enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm.

While Pallotta Teamworks' mission is to raise money to fight devastating diseases, the organization claims that its events are about "supporting human beings in moving beyond the limits they have constructed for themselves as individuals."

In this way, the charity event might be the perfect motivation, requiring that we focus on ourselves while forcing us to look far beyond. Many individuals participate for just this reason — to feel a part of something bigger than themselves.

Many participants discover that the reasons they originally got involved become less important as the cause takes on new shades of meaning and depth.

"Very rarely does the cause itself act as a motivator (to get involved)," explains Alexandra Pendleton, a marathon trainer with the Leukemia Society's Team in Training. "Once participants sign up and get into the meat of the program, however, everything seems to change. Motivation now lies in feeling an obligation to friends and family to complete this journey that they have begun, as well as to their honorees."

In this sense, it's much more difficult to give up on a daily workout. As one AIDS rider explained, what kept her going was "the cause itself. Once I was committed, I said 'I will do this thing. I will be trained. I will be in the best shape I can.'"

Faces in the crowd

The AIDS rides draw large crowds of supporters, and participants describe the inspiration derived from constant reminders of the cause they're working for. One AIDS rider recalls that she rode past a 'rider' without legs doing the entire ride with his arms. "When I felt bad, and was passing him, I was very grateful for all that I had, and it helped me get over feeling bad."

Another woman describes a man handing out cookies in memory of his partner, who had died of AIDS just months before. Witnessing firsthand this kind of personal suffering can turn physical exhaustion into fuel. Especially for the riders for whom this was a faceless cause, it's now the people who keep them moving.

Jodi Wilgoren, a woman who completed the Avon Breast Cancer 3-day Walk and wrote about it for the New York Times (6/13/00), explains why people keep on walking, twenty miles a day, for three days. "Because you're surrounded by women who've had it so much harder than you. Because your body has never had to fight this hard, but it might. Because your mother, the survivor, is waiting for you at the closing ceremonies..."

Coming Back For More

Many individuals make charity events a part of their lives, participating once a year or more, and getting friends and family involved. A good number also return to volunteer, finding that the act of supporting others — while supporting a cause — is the ultimate reward.

Some go as far as to make a living by helping people get fit. Over the past several years, this country has seen a tremendous swell in professional personal trainers; testimony to the power of team training.

Patti Finke and her husband are running coaches for the Oregon chapter of the Leukemia Society's Team in Training. A long-time marathoner and athlete, Patti claims that her ultimate goal is to make sure that people are well prepared for the marathon, so that they not only finish, but also enjoy the experience. She reports that 50 to 80 percent of her team members return to do it all over again.

"It is empowering," Patti explains. "Finishing your first marathon makes you feel invincible, like you could do anything."

Sarah J. Merrill writes and lives in the Bay Area, where she finds it's easy to stay active. She can reached at sarahmerrill@hotmail.com


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