Staff Q&A / Suzanne Smith

Suzanne Smith, health promotion program manager for the Divison of Human Resources  Photo credit: Mark Stehle

If you see someone briskly walking around campus, there’s a good chance he or she is either a student hustling to class or a faculty or staff member involved in Penn’s Walking Program.

Suzanne Smith is the brains behind the exercise program, which has exploded in popularity since she created it in 2007. As Penn’s health promotion program manager for the Divison of Human Resources, Smith is an avid walker, and when she arrived on campus she wanted everyone to learn about the benefits of putting one foot in front of the other.

The Current caught up with Smith to discuss the program, other wellness initiatives she’s involved in and to get a few health and nutrition tips that have served her well in her own life.

Q. What are your main responsibilities as the health promotion program manager for Human Resources?
I [run] the Penn Walking Program, the Maintain, Don’t Gain program around the holidays, and we do our seasonal flu shot program in October and November. We also run various nutrition and health promotion and wellness programs, and over the summer we hold the annual Open Enrollment Health Fair and screenings.

Q. What’s the Penn Walking Program?
It was started in March of ’07, and there wasn’t anything like it existing. It really was [a result of] dedication from upper management; they wanted to promote a culture of health on campus.
There’s nothing mandatory about the program, it’s all to get people more aware about the benefits of walking. We give pedometers to everyone who joins, as well as a T-shirt that says ‘I’m a Penn walker.’ We have different walking groups around campus, and all members get weekly emails from me on Mondays about walking and nutrition.
We do group walks every Friday if people want social support. Penn is so decentralized, it’s a good way for people to get to know each other. From 11 a.m. to noon is more for beginners, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. is for people who are slightly faster.

Q. Where are your favorite places to walk on campus?
It depends on who shows up, the weather and how much time people have, but we like to go around campus up to Woodland Cemetery, or over by the Schuylkill River. We go wherever people want.

Q. How do people participate?
We have about 2,030 people right now. They can particiapte however they want. We have a web site where they go online and track their steps, their distance, compare themselves to other people their age in different schools, departments. It’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s kind of a good beginner program because it reaches a lot of people. It’s all about getting out and exercising.

Q. Is walking really that great of an exercise? How many calories can you burn?
You burn the same amount of calories whether you run a mile or walk a mile. Running, you’re burning more energy in a quicker amount of time. Walking is great for increasing muscle strength, toning. It helps women do weight bearing exercises, it decreases your risk of cancer, heart disease. It gets a bad rap sometimes, because people think it’s normal, but you can really get your heart rate up.

Q. Can you give me a few examples of information that has been in the weekly emails?
The weekly emails would be anything from tips for staying motivated, if you need a nudge to get outside and maybe walk to a game or event. One was about how to make realistic goals and how to accomplish those goals. We had a media playlist for good walking songs, quizzes for best walking protocol, yoga moves to improve your leg strength.

Q. Tell me about ‘Maintain, Don’t Gain.’
We do weigh-ins the week before Thanksgiving and again the week after New Year’s to get people aware of eating better during the holidays. It’s really not about weight loss, it’s more about maintaining. We give people two to three pounds of wiggle room. If they’re successful, we have prizes. They get a weekly email and a packet of information with a bunch of healthy holiday eating tips, recipes, that kind of thing.

Q. What are some tips for maintaining, not gaining, during the holidays?
Don’t go to a buffet or party starving, eat something small ahead of time. Obviously eat the things that you know, the vegetables, the fruit. Another one that I’ve done is eat with your non-dominant hand so you’re actually less comfortable eating. It’s kind of a mind game to play on yourself.
The key is realizing that just because food is there, it doesn’t mean you have to eat it. We have 132 people who finished the program, and 93 percent lost or maintained their weight. A couple people lost between five and seven pounds.

Q. Do you have any other tips for eating right?
Keeping a food diary is a great recommendation for people who are looking to make changes in their diet. It’s much easier to change your eating habits when you know where you’re starting from. Keep it at least two or three days a week and at least one weekend [day]. Write everything down, and be very specific. If you have a salad, you want to put down how much dressing. If you have a sandwich, put down whether there was a whole or half tomato, how many ounces of meat and cheese you had.
You can either get a book or put it in online, and there’s a great wealth of information out there. You can type in ‘chicken breast calories’ and you can find everything you want to know. Do that for a week, add it up, and get a tally. If you need to make changes from that, you can. You can use the recommended daily allowance and compare what you’re taking in for what’s recommended for your age and weight.
Never go below a certain amount of calories, about 1,200. Some people think they need to starve themselves, and they take in less food than they need, and it actually impedes weight loss. After six to eight weeks, your body goes into starvation mode and it begins to hold on to the calories and use them for basic bodily functions. Your body needs more calories than you think you do.

Q. How did you wind up at Penn?
By chance really. I was working previously as a medical editor for Blue Cross, but my master’s degree is in health promotion, and I wanted to get back to my roots. [The Penn community] is very eager to have this type of information given to them. The more we do for them shows the more we care about their well-being and their health. There was nothing here before in terms of these types of programs, so people are definitely excited.

Q. So how far have you walked since you’ve arrived?
I don’t track my steps much; I do it more by heart rate and how I’m feeling. I get an idea of how fast I’m walking just by how I’m feeling. Ten thousand steps in a day is the goal, and I’ll typically get 15,000 to 20,000. I work out other places as well. Sometimes I walk home—and I live in Fishtown. That takes an hour and 45 minutes. I’ll walk anywhere.

Originally published on May 20, 2010