Employee Wellness

Is a Fitness Challenge Right for My Workplace?

What’s wrong with a fitness challenge at the workplace? You know, ride your bike to work week or walk a mile at lunch day, or some other activity to engage people in health and socialization. They’re great to build a supportive, fun atmosphere at work while increasing the workplace energy.

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Nothing’s wrong with fitness challengesso long as they are inclusive and the participants understand their own goals and limitations.

In fact, The Harvard Business Review reported that health and wellness initiatives at the workplace yielded approximately a 3-to-1 return in money saved. And another study found that number more like 6-to-1 in ROI.

However, most experts agree that these initiatives should not be mandatory. They must be voluntary, engaging, and cost-effective if they’re going to satisfy the aims of workplace wellness challenges.

The object of fitness challenges is encouragement: for healthier lifestyles, energetic workplace team players, and camaraderie. But successful challenges are those that integrate into the larger aims of an entire wellness program.

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Typically, a competition to substitute one unhealthy snack a day with a healthy one or a steps challenge can launch a larger initiative to meet the company’s goal of lowering the cholesterol levels of at-risk employees.

Let’s face it.

No run-a-5k-in-4-weeks challenge is going to motivate those who do little or no running. Fitness enthusiasts are more likely to take up the challenge. But any program designed to change unhealthy lifestyles is not so much for the fit as the sedentary employee.

So what will draw the most participants to a fitness challenge? One that is inclusive and challenging yet feasible. Oh, and better still, the product of employee input. People invest more drive and willpower into something they helped create.

Snack Nation, a healthy snack company with a creative and innovative wellness program,, recommends putting an employee panel together of the most motivated employees to lead the charge. Employee-led initiatives are more successful than mandates from the top.

What Makes a Great Challenge in the Long Run?

Wellness initiatives must be fully endorsed and embraced at the topCEO’s, leaders, and management. And it must be a genuine effort.

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Know what your employees are into already, whether that’s hot yoga, walking, the Paleo diet, triathlons, or pilates. Include what your employees are already enthusiastic about and then create activities that incite others without declared interests to join in. This is where your panel of representative employees and motivators comes in.

Have several challenges of varied difficulty and length throughout the year. Mix it up with day, week or month-long challenges from a host of health and wellness categories: exercise, nutrition, emotional well being, stress-reducers, smoking cessation, financial, and organizational.

Choose easy, medium and difficult challenges: stairs day challenge, bike to work weeks, or biggest loser competitions. And then strategically align them with company goals for long-term achievements, like fewer absenteeism due to stress, burn-out, or chronic illness.

Give all the ideas employees offer a chance if possible. Not everyone is working on the same life challenges. Some need to be motivated about diet, others exercise, and still others on stress reduction. But everyone benefits from some things, no matter their physical state: meditation, water consumption, and time off.

Catchy, fun challenges that are more like games that entail teams and milestone achievements do better than half hearted attempts at something serious, like health screening incentives: challenges, like Meatless Mondays, Thank an office mate Tuesday, or Fill up on water Wednesday. Mix it up but be sure your company offers challenges consistently if it’s serious about real change.

Eye on the Prize

Though prizes or rewards other than the health benefits, sense of accomplishment, and communal effort motivate some people to take on challenges, the rewards should be modest and plentiful–no winner takes all events.

Community events participation, like business donations to a 10k race for charity, satisfies the human need to collectively support one another, especially those less fortunate. Like the misery loves company psyche, philanthropic goals produce their own rewards, no matter how large or small each contributes.

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And all participants’ efforts merit reward, say, for points earned toward individual goals relative to each person’s starting point. Perhaps achievers get recognized in some way at the company luncheon or department meeting. Money or gifts are not necessarily motivators for the hard work that lifestyle changes entail.

A good challenge yields many winners or achievers based on effort and participation. Getting your physical exam, drinking 4 cups of water at work, avoiding junk food, or 10-minute meditation break a day challenges are for everyone.

If the challenges are physical or fitness-related, employees with health problems that preclude them from participating pose a challenge in itself. You don’t want to discourage anyone from entering the competition but you also don’t want to risk injury. Employees should discuss participation with their physicians first or participate within their limitations. Physical challenges ought to be adaptable to the spectrum of abilities

Tally It Up

Accountability and tallying up the score keeps everyone on the same page, tracking their own progress while keeping an eye on the competition.

Quantifiable results for minutes exercised and numbers of days, floors, stairs, steps, and activities help promote engagement, participation, and results. Employers can provide fitness trackers to employees, or, if not feasible, a central place where results can be reported and published, say on a leaderboard of some sort.

Good results are good for everyone: businesses make profits and individuals get health. A well-designed, planned, and organized fitness challenge is right for any workplace from the large corporation with thousands of employees globally to the small startup of a handful of employees. Whether your employees are housed in one central location or all over the country, there’s a challenge to fit or tailor to the needs of every workplace.

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