Global Corporate Challenge combats obesity

Program challenges employees to take 10,000 steps per day, leads to weight loss, team-building

When Standard Life was looking to enhance its health and wellness initiatives in 2011, it wanted to implement something that included everyone, said Eric Pfeiffer, a senior consultant at the 2,000-employee company.

It wanted a program where it didn’t matter how physically fit you were or what part of the country you were in, no one would be excluded. So, the company chose to get involved with the Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) — a program that challenges participants to take 10,000 steps each day.

“With regards to a program like this, it’s a very simple thing — it’s just walking, so it’s inclusive for everyone,” said Pfeiffer, who is based in Toronto. “As opposed to having just a fitness centre in one location, this is something that can bring all offices together and everyone has an equal opportunity to participate.”

The GCC is open to workplaces of all sizes from across the globe and runs for 16 weeks every year starting in May. Employees form teams of seven and participants are given pedometers to track their steps. As they input their steps online, the team is taken on a virtual walking journey across the globe — the more steps they take, the more cities they can visit, said Jennifer Krueger, North American co-ordinator at the GCC in Toronto.

“Our aim is to combat the worldwide obesity epidemic and reverse that sedentary lifestyle of the full-time workforce,” she said. “It’s been designed to change people’s lifestyle habits and increase their steps to 10,000 per day… which is a big change for people because the average office worker is only doing 3,000 steps a day.”

Last year, 130,000 people from 83 countries participated in the GCC. The cost for employers averages about US$99 per person and the more employees who participate, the lower the cost, said Krueger.

To reach their 10,000 steps, participants can do just about anything, from walking and running to yoga or karate, she said. There are even conversions for activities such as swimming and cycling.

And the GCC provides wheelchair odometers and conversions for other physical disabilities.

Employees at Standard Life started walking together at lunch, using the stairs more, biking to work and going out dancing, said Pfeiffer.

“I’ve never seen more people using the stairs than I did through the competition,” he said. “It’s the simple things, it’s taking the stairs instead of the elevators and all those things count and people don’t necessarily think about that.”

Since it was the company’s first year participating, Standard Life put a cap on the number of employees who could participate — 140 — but the response was “immediate and overwhelming,” with all the spots being filled in one day, said Pfeiffer. Participants averaged 13,000 steps per day.

Staying active throughout the workday is extremely important because individuals who are sedentary for more than 30 hours per week are at a greater risk of obesity, even those who are otherwise active, according to research by Randy Fransoo which studied 35,000 Manitoba adults over 20 years.

“Our bodies want to have activity — we’re not designed for sitting,” said Fransoo, who is a research scientist at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “The more active we can be, the better, and I use the word ‘active’ — not ‘exercise’ — intentionally because that’s the other thing the result is telling us, if vigorous activity was the only important thing and just walking around a little bit didn’t matter, then we wouldn’t have the results we have.”

To stay active, employees can walk around their office when on the phone, park at the back of the parking lot or walk over to colleagues as opposed to emailing them, said Fransoo. Employers could also provide standing work stations or on-site showers for people who bike to work, he said.

The key to helping employees get active is to make it fun, said Krueger.

“If you’re a marathon runner, that’s amazing, but the GCC also targets people who haven’t exercised in 20 years and the way we do that is through a good sense of humour and we don’t make it sound like this is going to be the Biggest Loser challenge or we’re going to make you do 20 pushups in 20 seconds because that can be very intimidating.”

The GCC sends participants ongoing email communication with inspirational and fun videos, individual data points and personalized reminders to keep people motivated, she said.

The GCC is a win-win program for employees and employers since there are huge benefits for both, said Pfeiffer. At Standard Life, 95 per cent of participating employees reported improved health, 80 per cent reported more energy and 67 per cent said they were better able to handle stress, according to a report from the GCC.

And 47 per cent of participants experienced weight loss, averaging about eight pounds.

Participants also reported increased morale (82 per cent), increased job satisfaction (72 per cent), increased engagement (58 per cent) and improved productivity (52 per cent), found the report.

“(Employees) really enjoyed the friendly competition. Everyone really supported each other and it also provided a great opportunity for teamwork and networking,” said Pfeiffer. “We had some teams that were comprised of different employees from different departments and, in some cases, from different cities and they got to know each other very well and were sharing stories and motivating each other.”

One of the biggest challenges for office workers is having to be at their chair or desk to get their job done, said Fransoo.

“We don’t want to drop productivity with having people standing up all the time and sauntering around not doing their work, so the challenge is you have to remain productive,” he said.

And some employees may have difficulty finding the time to stay active. Employers need to help employees understand they do have the time — so instead of a run at 5:30 a.m., they can walk around a boardroom table a few times before a meeting begins, and that’s OK, said Krueger.

“Allowing employees to get involved in something at work makes it much easier for them,” said Pfeiffer.

“Everyone has busy lives and if they’re spending so much time (at work) and then rushing home, you don’t necessarily have the opportunity or time to do the things that keep you healthy. There’s great benefit to programs that give that avenue for employees to take control of their health at work.”

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