It’s all about teamwork

Fitness challenges can be more fun – and effective – with groups involved
By Veronica Marsden
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/04/2013

With tight budgets, organizations are looking for easy-to-implement and cost-effective ways to support employee health, improve engagement and build spirit at the workplace.

A fitness challenge is a great way to launch a wellness program, especially with the support and participation of leaders. When Direct Energy revamped its corporate wellness program in 2011, the senior executives asked to be involved to demonstrate they were 100 per cent behind it.

The marketing department produced a video to promote the challenge to the company’s 6,500 employees throughout North America. The executive team challenged everyone to join a month-long walking challenge and the CEO and president wore funky running shoes for the shoot.

The video was a great marketing vehicle, with employees signing up in droves. At the end of the competition, the shoes were turned into trophies the winning team could hold for the year.

Once you decide to include an incentive challenge in your annual wellness calendar, there are a few important steps that will impact its success.

Focus on goals

If enhancing employee engagement is a goal, team challenges versus individual ones are more effective. With social support and peer pressure, the retention rate for team challenges is higher. An ideal team size is four to eight people. When teams get too large, individuals feel less accountable for the group’s success.

Ensure each team has a captain and encourage him to come up with a name to promote team spirit and fun. Set criteria to avoid stacked teams. For example, stipulate that each team include a manager and at least one employee who has been with the company for less than six months. The idea is to promote camaraderie, teamwork and healthy competition.

With more than 50 per cent of benefit costs often related to dependant coverage, consider including a family category. Research shows family support is important for lifestyle changes to be sustainable. It also promotes a workplace culture of “taking wellness home” and active living is a “family affair.”

Consider tying the challenge theme to pop culture. The Biggest Loser concept, for example, works well for a January competition focusing on New Year’s resolutions and weight loss.

Choose a format

Web-based incentive challenges enable companies to reach out to all employees, regardless of location, and participation has never been easier with online tracking functions, Google mapping and social media capabilities.

Paper-based challenges might be more suited to low-tech work environments or smaller organizations. Employees can track their points on poster boards in the staff lounge or cafeteria. Or participants can email points to the team captain or wellness rep on a weekly basis.

Consider timing

One of the biggest decisions to be made is the duration of the challenge. Four to six weeks is an ideal length — long enough to reap the rewards of healthy lifestyle changes but short enough to sustain enthusiasm and momentum. Also, don’t over challenge. If internal resources are in place to support a fitness and wellness program, two to three challenges per year is optimal.

Think carefully about timing — avoid particularly busy periods. Popular times to launch campaigns are January and September when people are typically trying to re-establish a routine and “get back on track.” With summer around the corner and people shedding layers, May is also an ideal time to schedule events.

Get the word out

Create a marketing plan for the competition. Look for ways to reach out to everyone using email, an intranet site, social media, bulletin boards and video. And make sure wellness reps or champions have the information needed to promote the event through word-of-mouth.

Consider hosting a special company event to celebrate the competition launch, such as a lunchtime walk led by the company president, healthy snacks handed out as people arrive at work or a dress-down day where people wear their favourite team T-shirt and sneakers.

The competition will likely rely on an honour system to determine the winners. When prizes are at stake, there will always be contestants who are driven and want to win at all costs. The honour system, however, still works in accomplishing the ultimate goal of the program.

Keep energy up

During the competition, look for ways to keep employees engaged. Ongoing communication is critical — weekly emails with challenge updates, motivational sayings, behaviour-change strategies, wellness tips and recipe ideas are effective at keeping participants on track.

Also, consider creating opportunities to facilitate regular participation. If the goal is to foster a more active workplace, start a walking club or bring in a yoga instructor to teach after-work classes. If the focus is on healthy eating and weight loss, think about having “fresh fruit Fridays” and encouraging the cafeteria vendor to promote a healthy meal-of-the-day option.

Consider adding a charitable component. For example, if a team volunteers to work at a food bank in the community, it could be allocated a set number of bonus points.

Incenting employees to participate adds an element of fun and enhances the success of the competition. Prizes don’t need to be expensive, but should be meaningful. For a team challenge, the lure of a trophy and bragging rights go a long way towards keeping enthusiasm alive. If the financial resources are available, a team lunch or massages are popular.

For individual recognition, consider draws for those who complete the challenge, with prizes such as iPods or gift cards. And don’t forget the power of peer recognition. Have a success wall and post weekly “healthy heroes” or use the company intranet site to recognize inspirational leaders.

Next steps

At the conclusion of the challenge, share participation numbers, announce the winners and profile success stories. Poll employees on what they liked and ideas they might have for the next event.

Look for ways to keep the wellness message alive between challenges. If the goal of the challenge was weight loss, establish a support group so participants can get together, share success strategies and seek support when they feel challenged or discouraged. Also, consider establishing a wellness committee to explore ideas to build a culture of wellness.

Veronica Marsden is president of Tri Fit in Oakville, Ont., a company that manages wellness programs and challenges in the workplace. She can be reached at, (905) 845-0006 or visit

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