Sherry Pagoto is a clinical health psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Her research currently focuses on obesity and related conditions like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. She is an avid runner and mother of a three year old girl, who she is convinced will take over the world one day. To learn more about Sherry, visit her profile in our Expert Network.
How did you become interested in health and fitness, and how did it become part of your career?
A few defining events in my life put me on the path of health and fitness. The first was being overweight as a child in a family of skinny people. I had an active life— swimming, playing softball, riding my bike— so it was very frustrating. When I became a teenager, I started to really think about how much I ate and how many calories I burned. I remember looking up the calories in certain foods in a book as a teenager! Maybe that isn’t something a teen should be thinking about, but I had a strong fascination in energy balance and fitness. I ended up losing the extra weight by learning how to balance food intake with my activity levels. I have never been underweight or used unhealthy means to regulate my weight— it was always in pursuit of achieving healthy balance.
The second defining event was a class I took in high school called Health Occupations taught by Gloria Bawol. She was an amazing teacher, and taught us in a very dynamic way about the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle. I remember her showing us pictures of lungs of smokers, hardened arteries, and decayed teeth. To this day, I watch my cholesterol and floss my teeth because she scared the crap out of me.
The next defining moment was the sudden death of my uncle of a heart attack at age 44. His untimely death made me realize that my genes might not be stacked in my favor and I better fight that force as much as I can.
My final defining moment was learning of an area of psychology (my college major) entirely devoted to health. I was thrilled to study theories of health behavior change and apply them to help people adopt healthy behaviors to lose weight, quit smoking, and reduce their risk for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Health is really all about behavior. I believe that in the end behavior will save us, not pharmaceuticals. I am firmly devoted to the idea that we have some control over the length and quality of our lives and we need to make a daily investment in a long healthy life through healthy choices.
What are your weekly workouts like? What do you do and why? How do you make fitness and health a priority in your schedule?
I am a runner. I love running because it is the most efficient way for me personally to regulate my weight. Plus, it is my single best stress management strategy. I honestly don’t know how I would live without it. I run five days a week totaling about 25 to 35 miles. I have run one marathon, several half marathons, and a ton of smaller races. To keep me on track, I schedule a race every three to four months. I also do some yoga and core exercises to support my running. Exercise is a huge priority in my life and I will do whatever it takes to keep it in my schedule, including paring back at work, declining a social invitation that conflicts with a scheduled run, letting the laundry sit, spending less time on other hobbies, etc. Hell or high water, I will run five days a week. My goal is to run a half marathon in all 50 states. I have six states down so far! Who is in for the next 44?!
What did you eat today specifically for breakfast/lunch/dinner? Is that typical for you? Why?
For breakfast I typically have cereal or a bagel. I eat a snack of almonds, cheese, and/or fruit in between breakfast and lunch. Lunch varies but I try to pick something that is heavy on vegetables (soups, stir fry, salad, etc...). Dinner varies too. If I go out I almost always order seafood. If I stay in I often eat pasta, and also try to include fruit and veggies as much as possible. I love carbs, so I shoot for a high fiber, low fat, and tons of fruits and veggies diet. I limit meat to two to three times per week and rarely eat fried foods.
What do you have the most trouble with in terms of health, fitness, and happiness?
My biggest problem is looking forward to being better (run faster, have a race behind me, finish a work project, get to a next phase in life) that I don’t spend enough time enjoying the here and now. I am trying to reorient myself from the future to the right now more and more so that I stop letting the moment pass me by.
Where do you find happiness on a daily basis?
The four things that make me happy every day are my daughter, my work, my family/friendships, and running. Everything else is negotiable.