You don't need a microscope to help find a cure for cancer. A pair of running shoes will do just fine. Thousands of people, from novice walkers to seasoned cyclists, are contributing to the fights against diseases like ]]>breast cancer]]>, ]]>arthritis]]>, ]]>leukemia]]>, and ]]>HIV/AIDS]]>. Many charity events are held throughout the country on any given weekend that allow people to challenge themselves and support a good cause.

"During the ride I met many volunteers and riders who were affected by AIDS…the ride became more for them and less for me."
—cyclist in the Boston to New York AIDS Ride

Getting Started

"There are many obstacles to starting or continuing a workout program," explains sports psychologist and triathlete JoAnn Dahlkoetter, PhD. "But focusing your efforts on a specific goal, say to complete the Walk for Hunger, can help carry you over those hurdles."

Esther Kim, a 24-year old dietitian from Boston, is living what Dr. Dahlkoetter is teaching. Just two months ago, Kim was quickly losing interest in the same old gym routine when she heard about the Danskin Women's Triathlon series. "It sounded like just the kind of physical challenge I needed, and what I really like about it is that part of my entry fee goes to breast cancer research." Inspired by her newfound purpose, Kim dove back into working out with renewed enthusiasm. Since then, she has been doing some kind of physical activity, whether it's ]]>swimming]]>, cycling, ]]>weight lifting]]>, ]]>running]]>, or tae kwon do, at least five days a week.

You Must Choose Wisely

The key is to choose a goal that is challenging, yet achievable with a little hard work and sweat on your part. For instance, if you enjoy running, but you're getting bored with the same five mile route, sign up for the Leukemia Society's Team in Training marathon training program. In return for fundraising, they'll supply you with a training schedule, expert coaches, group runs, and a team of fellow athletes reaching for the same goal. In addition, you'll be paired with an "honored patient" who will serve as a source of motivation and support throughout the program. Now, with a goal ahead of you and a network of people behind you, you'll feel that your runs are actually taking you somewhere you never thought you'd go.

Or perhaps you are trying to start up a regular walking routine, but you've logged more excuses for why today is not a good day to walk than you have miles in your new Reeboks. Pick a charity walk that's a reasonable distance—say three or four miles—and is about six weeks away, and sign up. Then, enlist a friend or a neighbor to join you and establish a training schedule. Start out with one mile the first week and increase by a half mile each week. With your partner expecting you every day and the date of the event looming ahead, you'll likely find the inspiration to get moving.

Thanks to her dedication to the breast cancer benefit triathlon, Kim has seen major gains in her training. "Before I decided to enter this race, I could only run for five minutes. Now, just eight weeks later, I'm up to three miles, the distance I'll have to run in the final leg of the triathlon," says Kim. Dahlkoetter isn't surprised by Kim's success. "Often workout routines with no end point are sacrificed for a few extra hours of sleep or an afternoon in front of the TV." The added incentive of doing good for someone else can inspire even the most delinquent exercisers to revitalize their workout routines.

Making a Difference

In addition to the fitness, speed, and strength that develop with regular training, charity events have an added dimension—the satisfaction of taking steps, literally, toward making someone's life better. Knowing you have contributed to the search for a cure for diabetes can be very empowering. "Regardless of skill level, athletes find that competing in charity events can deliver a healthy boost to their confidence and self-esteem, which adds extra purpose to their training, and also translates into other areas of life," explains Dahlkoetter.

A love for cycling and a desire to "ride a century" (100 miles) inspired Chris Guarino, a 33-year-old pension consultant, to sign up for the Boston to New York AIDS Ride last year. By following a specially designed training schedule for the five months prior to the event, Guarino steadily increased his weekly mileage on the bike from 100 to 250 miles. He also managed to raise $2,400 ($600 more than the mandatory $1800), 75% of which was donated to local AIDS charities.

Even though he met his goal of riding a century three times over during the course of the ride, what struck Guarino most was the magnitude of what he and the other cyclists were accomplishing. "During the ride I met many volunteers and riders who were affected by AIDS, which made each day more emotional than the previous one; the ride became more for them and less for me." Guarino's experiences during the AIDS Ride have inspired him to continue training hard and to compete in other charity events.

Charity Lite

If helping out a good cause appeals to you, but months of fundraising does not, don't hang up your swim goggles just yet. There is as great a variety of events as there are athletes and aspiring athletes willing to donate their sweat for the good of science. For example, the In-Line Club of Boston, which donates a portion of entry fees and requires no extra fundraising by participants, sponsors races all over New England to benefit such charities as the American Heart Association, the Alliance for Better Childcare, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

In fact, many races donate entry fees, so check your local paper for fun runs, dance-a-thons, charity walks, benefit swims, and other such events. But consider yourself warned, such events have been known to be addicting. You may experience an enhanced commitment to your workouts, a real connection to those whom your competition is benefiting, and a heightened sense of pride in your achievements.