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A Step Above the Rest

Katie Kniess with sunglasses on bicycle with Oliver, a black and white dog, in her backpack

Pitt’s graduate and professional students make strides in advancing the world’s knowledge every day. Their professional excellence and scholarship improves lives, strengthens communities and makes the world an all-around better place.   

A recent competition aimed at boosting their physical activity challenged them to focus on their own strides. In just three weeks, participants logged the equivalent of nearly 66.5 million steps, or about 33,247 miles.

A total of 80 four-person teams competed and 232 students completed all three weeks of the Graduate and Professional Student Fitness Competition co-sponsored by the Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG), the Office of the Provost-Graduate Studies and Campus Recreation. Participants were rewarded with chances at team and individual prizes each week, including wellness consultations and personal training sessions from Campus Recreation, Amazon gift cards and a variety of electronic devices.

Although the competition was measured in steps, the goal was to encourage students to get moving, so organizers provided an activity conversion chart with a multiplier for translating almost any form of exercise—from vacuuming and lawn mowing to tai chi and scuba diving—into its equivalent in steps.  

And move they did: In addition to walking and running, participants boxed, swam, played basketball, snowboarded, hiked, cycled, danced, rock-climbed and even jumped rope to earn steps. 

In the end, Naomi Blackburn, Katie Kniess, Lauren Repak and Stephanie Shain, students in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) physician assistant program, topped the leader board as team Step-thoscopes. They took the grand prize with 1,964,574 total steps, outpacing their nearest competitor by more than 111,000 steps.

They credited the right mix of competitive spirit and cohesive teamwork for the win. 

And from the start, they were in it to win it. 

a screenshot of a tweet by @micahope that says "catch me running around Bloomfield to get my steps in for @pittgpsg and @PittGradStudies's fitness competition!"
They admit that their choice of profession requires a strong competitive drive. “It’s hard to get into physician assistant school,” Shain said. “It’s tremendously difficult to even get accepted.” 

Blackburn agreed. “The program is challenging, but it’s almost just as stressful getting in,” she said. “Only a very small number get accepted, so it prepared us well.”

Shain said she reached out to all 60 of her classmates when she heard about the challenge, then polled those who’d expressed interest to determine who were most serious about competing. 

The four topped the list and formed the only team from SHRS, adopting the name Step-thoscopes at a classmate’s suggestion. 

A counterpoint to the competitiveness is the supportive atmosphere within the program for those who’ve been accepted, said Repak. “Pitt prides itself on the idea that once you’re in, you’re in, and you’re to help each other,” she said. 

“We are so used to helping, but if we wanted to win, we had to get competitive again,” she said.

The four didn’t exercise together as a team, but they held one another accountable by keeping their own activity logs, sharing individual action photos and encouraging each other, said Blackburn. 

They also watched the weekly leaderboards to keep tabs on the competition.

When they found themselves in third place after the first week, behind the leading team who’d raised its step count through a multiday snowboarding retreat, they, ahem, stepped up their efforts, determined not to let others run—or slalom—away with the lead. 

“I moved a lot more,” said Shain, who walked and did indoor rock climbing in addition to pedaling her desk bike two hours a day.“Most of us biked a lot,” Kniess said, noting that she biked regularly on roads near her home and on the Moraine State Park bike trail, often with her dog Oliver riding along in her backpack. She also played volleyball.

“It helped me got to the gym more,” said Repak, who did yoga and Pilates, and got additional steps by playing with her two kids, counting it as part of her aerobic exercise. 

“I started walking everywhere,” said Blackburn, who also biked and did interval training. “Walking outside was a good stress reliever,” she said. 

“I also gained new appreciation for my car.” 

The Step-thoscopes even added to their steps during class time. 

“Stephanie has her desk bike and we could see her getting crazy during classes,” said Repak, who admitted that she sometimes would jog in place during anatomy lab. Classmates knew they were competing so it wasn’t as weird as it might have seemed.

Their dedication and support for one another paid off: As grand prize winners, the teammates got to choose from an array of prizes that included iPads, Apple watches, Fitbits and Acer laptops. Each opted for a $300 Amazon gift card.

Support from across SHRS also helped them win the votes needed to garner an additional People’s Choice Prize for Best Team Name—no easy feat with competition from Running from our PhDemons, Legs Miserables, Bipedal to the Metal, Four Score and 7 Blisters Ago and Run Like the Winded, among others in the mix.

The four, who will complete their program in December 2022, stand ready to defend their title. 

Looking back, they said the toughest part was balancing the competition with their academics. Even the professors were wowed, given their schedule, Repak said. The weeks aligned with some of their program’s most difficult exams of the semester, Shain noted. 

“Doing this on top of our rigorous and challenging program was the real cherry on top,” Kniess agreed.