Step challenge challenges

Which are you?

1. Your step/walking challenge is all ready to go.

Use this guide to find out how to ensure you and/your staff, are on track to reach your goals.

2. You are considering rolling our a step challenge.

Read this guide to make sure you pick one that does what you’re hoping it will do.

3. You want a step/walking challenge all done and dusted, ready to roll, to meet the specific needs of your crew.

We’ve got a little free one call ‘A K A DAY’ similar to the walk with a refugee concept you’ll read about below, which you can download here.   But there are a few suggestions below for those of you that want your step challenge to have health and fitness benefits.

4.  You’re a step/fitness challenge developer.

Please read and give me your thoughts, and if, how you use the Octalysis Framework?


Step and walking type challenges are prolific. There are more than 100 apps for them in the app store. While these challenges can certainly help individuals and workplaces, they can often also fail us in the most crucial of ways, and that is, by not actually improving our health and fitness.  In good news, that’s an element that can be easily fixed.

Who this article is not for: If you’re rolling out a step challenge for the sole purpose of raising money for a good cause like this Steptember for Cerebral Palsy, then ignore all of this. Just like selling lamingtons for a good cause, there doesn’t need to be a bunch of health and fitness outcomes to goals like that, unless you want there to be, or people expect there will be, in which case read on.

Part 1: Why step challenges fail us

Understand these, and you’ll be able to spot them a mile away in any health and wellness programmes.

Part 2: How to fix the glitches

What you can add to your step challenges to ensure they are a success in all the ways you want them to be.

Part 3: The leftover stuff

Troubleshooting ideas to help with drop off rates and accessibility. Plus, an app you can use and practical ideas for step challenges that can help your community on all sorts of cool other levels.

10,000 steps a day

When we think of step challenges, we typically think of the 10,000 steps a day challenges, so that’s the one I’m going to be referring to mostly in my examples. However, most of the points below apply to all types of step and ‘walking’ type challenges.

Part 1: Why step challenges fail us

10,000 a day step challenges only fail us to the extent that they don’t meet our expectations. Below are 11 common expectations we have about them, even if they are not directly promoted alongside a specific challenge.

Sam & Sue: “I want to lose weight and be fitter, so I’m going to download a free 10,000 steps a day app. There are 100s of free ones in the app store. 10,000 steps sounds hard but also doable. I think a step challenge would motivate me to move more.”

Mark & Mary: Workplace Well-being Officers: “The step challenge provides staff with a T-shirt, a medal, as well as a large map for our staff room so everyone can keep track of their virtual distances on along the Chubu Hokuriku Nature Trail. Plus, there’s an app all the staff can download with a leaderboard in it, and they say 80% will improve activity levels.”

1.We think it will help us get fitter

Most people think their cardiovascular, or ‘heart-lung’ fitness, will improve with a 10,000 a day step challenge.

That’s probably because people equate being more active with being fitter, and for most people, 10,000 steps will be more than what they are currently doing. This is an important point because many step challenges sell themselves on the fact that they are increasing people’s activity levels, which they often are. But, here’s the clincher. Increasing activity levels doesn’t necessarily make people fitter.

To improve heart-lung fitness, people need to get huffy puffy. Their heart needs to get pumping, and they need to breathe hard. The thing is, it’s easy to walk 10,000 steps and not get huffy puffy. Many of my clients, when they first came to me, didn’t get sufficiently huffy puffy over that many steps to improve their heart-lung fitness. In more bad news, retail shop workers, factory floor workers, teachers and nurses can regularly walk 20,000+ steps in a day but clock up next to next to no, huffy puffy, exercise minutes. There may be other benefits to walking such whopping distances, but improving heart-lung fitness may well not be one of them. Equally importantly, it also means that we cannot assume they have a good base level of cardiovascular fitness based simply on how many steps they’re doing, i.e. their ‘activity’ levels.

If we want people to improve their heart-lung fitness, then they need to know about, prioritize and focus on, getting huffy puffy.

2. We think we will lose weight

What people may not know is that step challenges generally help us to lose weight if our heart rate goes up. The more our heart rate goes up, the more calories we burn, the more weight we lose. There are exceptions here, but that’s the guts of it for many people.

The problem is that it is possible to walk 10,000 steps with very little significant change in heart rate. Think of the pace that people walk around the mall at. Add to this that people often increase their dietary intake to match what they think has been an increase in energy expenditure from having walked for a couple of hours, at mall pace, and guesstimating incorrectly, they then consume more than they have expended.

If people are led to believe that walking 10,000 steps a day will help them lose weight, without mentioning the importance of getting their heart rate up sufficiently, they may well become disappointed and despondent when they don’t lose weight. This can be worse for the people we most want to engage.

If people have only been doing 3000 steps a day,  doing 10,000 steps can be a daunting and large commitment. They may find it requires 2-3 hours of walking each evening! Bored out of their brain they clock up their steps, sacrificing time with their family because they expect the results to outweigh the effort. How gutted are they after a month later and seeing no change to their weight.  And likely no change to their blood pressure, or cholesterol levels. Another story, albeit equally sad.

There are a few easy ways to increase our heart rate. Some of them have the added plus of helping us burn more bodyfat even after we have finished walking. (see part 2). If I had to put the success of my newbie weightloss focused clients down to one thing, it would be them knowing their heart rate and working with it.

Thankfully, it’s now easy to know what our heart rate is the whole time we out walking and to set health improving /weight loss goals with. This is by no means an add on to a step challenge that falls in the too hard basket.

3. 10,000 steps a day is physiologically beneficial if we are sedentary all day

What’s great for people who are sedentary much of the day is to move a little, often. Ideally in ways in which that they aren’t already moving.

Someone doing 10,000 steps in large hits, accumulating them all before or after work, or at lunchtime, does not combat the problems associated of sitting for the rest of the day.

People generally need to move hourly, ideally every half hour and that’s what goals should be built around if this is the desired end result.

This is a super easy focus to add into a step challenge, but not as easy as not adding it in.

4. They are simple to understand and easy to roll out

Most step challenges are super simple to understand and easy to roll out. There are clear goals and people know when they have succeeded. This is indeed their biggest selling feature next to ‘increasing activity levels’.

However, those characteristics should be a bonus to a challenge, not the determining factors as to why we use them, unless, as I say, the aim is to raise dosh for a good cause or some other goal unrelated to health and fitness.

It’s kind of like going to a restaurant because it has nice decor even though it doesn’t have any food. The challenge, the idea, the goals, still need to work otherwise we may as well be twiddling our thumbs, i.e. the restaurant needs to have food.

5. Workplace reports look great

We all want to do a great job at our job. If we are the one in charge of the health and wellness programs at our workplace, step challenges are appealing because heaps of staff will sign up for them. Most will likely cross the finish line too. Most everyone will increase their activity levels. The program can look successful easily and can give us great numbers to put into our reports.

Chances are we’ll also get some nice photos for our newsletter. We’ll have colorful posters to put up around the workplace and a maybe even a big map to put up in the staff room showing how far everyone has virtually travelled across a country. People may even get t-shirts at the start of the step challenge and medals for everyone at the end. Some of the entry fees go to a charity.

It’s all awesome stuff.

Except has anyone got happier, healthier, more productive, more vitamin D, fitter or whatever else you thought it would achieve?

I find myself back at the restaurant analogy. The restaurant with the great décor turns out also has wonderful customer service too, but it still has no food.

By the way, not for a minute do I think anyone in a workplace, tasked with organizing health and fitness activities, is aware of these conundrums. None would think to think that the program may not be reaping the benefits they expected, (which is why I’m writing this guide). The ones I have met are just as passionate about helping people as I am.

6. There’s good science behind the 10,000 step challenges

No, there’s actually not.

Mike Brannan, national lead for physical activity at Public Health England declared: “There’s no health guidance that exists to back it.”

In the Physical Activity Guidelines for America, Australia, NZ, the Uk and China, not one recommends doing 10,000 steps a day, and neither does the World Health Organization….anymore. They took it out. What you will find is that they all recommend something along the lines of 1) doing moderate to vigorous physical exercise for 30 minutes a day, or 150 – 200 minutes a week, and 2) moving often, i.e. less sedentary time.

Some have said that the reason the magic 10,000 figure emerged because a Japanese company manufactured step-ometers in 1965. They called them Manpo-Kei, meaning “10,000 steps meter”. The symbol for the number 10,000 looks like a person walking 万. It came together sweetly and stuck.

7. Step challenges are team building

Don’t be fooled by the marketing. We can put people in groups and call them teams, but that doesn’t mean any team building is going to take place. Step challenges don’t by default have this feature, and I’m yet to see a pre-packaged one that nails it.

8. A gateway activity to doing more exercise

Yes, they can be but only if it helps people reach their goals in the first place. Otherwise, it can slam the door on people bothering to have any more attempts at getting fit, because this one………. the one they just did…………… which they were told was so simple……….perfect for beginners in fact, well it didn’t work for them. Adjust the goal to something they can feasibly expect to happen, and create an enjoyable way for them to reach it, and you’re on to a winner.

9. They cater for all abilities and fitness levels

Giving everyone a 10,000 step a day programme doesn’t cater for those who are currently only managing 2 or 3000 steps a day through to those doing 20,000 steps, nor those whose chronic conditions would be exasperated by doing that many through to those who have a great level of fitness and not benefit at all.

10. Apps engage people

Some apps totally do, but I just looked at the reviews for a whole bunch of Step Challenge apps that cost up to $50 a person to join in on. The reviews, i.e. people’s experiences, were overwhelmingly disheartening. So first up, check the reviews before you buy into any of them, whether they be free, cheap or costly.

Secondly, these step challenges apps are usually designed by app developers, not exercise professionals or behavioural modification experts.

Thirdly, apps can now be bought and sold to people and businesses who have no app creation ability, who can then re-skin them as their own, and sell them on. Among other things, this means those apps are less likely to stay bug-free or secure and may indeed have even been designed as a portal for hackers from the outset.

Fourth, free apps are overflowing with lots of advertising. That can be enough to disengage people pretty fast. Thankfully it’s easily fixed. Pay for the no adverts version of apps.

Fifth, apps using good gamification principles weaving through them can help us take more steps and do the more healthy activity by rewarding us with badges, points and superpowers. Still, none of that matters if we can circumvent the activity and buy those badges and points with cold cash.

I don’t doubt apps won’t get better. Some already include heart rate goals and hourly move goals. Essentially, they are drawing on the data that Apple and similar wearables collect. In a nutshell, the more those devices collect, the more creative, and helpful those apps can be. I think the future looks very bright on this front, so keep an eye out for what emerges and you can pull in for your clients to use.

I don’t doubt some big companies, who’s whole business is about supporting other businesses with their workplace health and wellness, have mastered how to included Step Challenges effectively as a piece into their programmes with multiple levels and mini challenges weaved within them to actually help people get fitter for their job role, have less sedentary time etc. Just ask for the deets before you commit everyone to it.

11. Something is better than nothing

Something that works is better than nothing.
Something that doesn’t work is worse than nothing, because it wastes people’s time, lots of time often, and it disheartens them.

Part 2: How to make step challenges more effective

The most important thing here is educating people. You can do that by simply creating a handout summarising how people can reach the various goals that may be important to them when doing a step/walking challenge.  Then let them choose.

Below are six example goals and suggestions below on how to adjust challenges to cater to them and/or the type of information you can provide to people.

1. Goal: To do more steps.

If you really want people to take a walk/wheel more every day then consider having everyone add 1000 steps onto what they are currently doing. That way if someone doing 3000 steps it goes to 4000 and someone doing 20,000 has to nail out 21,000. These goals are likely to be far less daunting for the person doing just 2000 or 3000 steps, and there’s a good chance that the person doing 20,000 will now likely speed up the pace to get another 1000 in i.e. they may get huffy and puffy. Win-win.

2. Goal: To improve cardiovascular fitness

You’re more likely to see improvements in cardiovascular fitness if you encourage people to get huffy puffy for a percentage of the steps they’re taking. You could do this by having them reach a certain heart rate or pace (no. of steps per minute). As an example, if my heart rate is normally 95 when I am walking, then the goal might be to get it to 110 for 1000 of my daily steps. If my pace is normally 14  minutes a km, maybe I aim to walk at 13 minutes a km for 1000 steps a day.

This is a good point in time to call in an exercise pro who can access how viable and safe those ideas are for each individual, but for most people, simply challenging them to complete 1000 of their steps in a shorter period of time is going to work a treat.

If people aren’t keen on increasing their pace, simply encouraging them to walk upstairs, on hills, or with a bit of extra weight in a backpack, will all also work at increasing their heart rate. So you could for example:-

  • Reward staff for doing 100+ of their steps on the office stairs each day.
  • Award extra ‘points’ to people who carry say 5 kilograms of weight in a backpack for 1000 of their steps.

Specifically focusing on cardiovascular fitness will also help those people who are doing 20,000 + steps at a slower pace like retail shop floorwalkers, as much as it will everyone who is not coming anywhere close to reaching a 10,000 step goal and for whom you may have given a lower step goal to.

3. Goal: Lower blood sugar levels.

Challenge people to do 1000 – 2000 brisk steps in the 20 minutes after a meal, to help lower blood sugar levels.

4. Goal: Increase Vitamin D levels.

Help staff overcome seasonal affective disorder by challenging staff to do 1000 steps outside, during lunchtimes, in winter.

5. Goal: Reduce sedentary time

Challenge people to do a number of brisk steps every 30 minutes of sitting time.

6. Goal: Weight loss

Broadly speaking the way in which to achieve weight loss involves the same ideas as set out at no.2. By improving/challenging our cardiovascular fitness, by getting huff puffy, we raise our heart rate and burn more calories.

The additional and helpful thing to be aware of here is that when people are going upstairs, inclines or hills or carrying extra weight in the backpack example or going super hard out by doing short sprints, they’re more likely to build muscle. Muscle is great. These types of workouts have us burning more calories for longer post-workout than ones that don’t involve pushing the muscles in this way.

As exercise pros know only too well, building muscle while great for burning body fat doesn’t always fare well when we stand on a set of bathroom scales. Muscle is more dense than bodyfat, so we can weigh more even though we are trimming down losing bodyfat.

Also, helpful when it comes to weight loss goals is knowing that the extra energy expended should not be replaced by food intake. One of the most common mistakes maybe that people head off for their brisk walk with the Powerade in hand. They drink more calories than they expend.

Where am I going with all of this? That some education around what gives rise to weight loss is important if people are anticipating that weight loss will be a fringe benefit of their step challenge.

It’s not that you need a ton of education or some full-on nutritional programme, but three or four bullet points on these facts could go a long way to helping people. If you’re a workplace reading this, you could use what I’ve written here or ask a personal trainer, an accredited exercise physiologist or dietitian to jot down some tips for you to pass on to staff.

Part 3: The leftover stuff

Avoiding drop off

These ideas may help in situations where people miss a day or two so they then they pull out altogether, or when they don’t feel sufficiently challenged or catered for.

  1. If people don’t reach their step goals on one day allow them to make it up the next day, or to do all ‘missed steps’ in the final week.
  2. Set up a points system for instance: earn 100 points for meeting your daily step goal, but even if you don’t reach your daily step goal you can earn 50 points for doing 1000 steps outside at lunchtime, 50 points clocking them up while playing ping pong with a fellow staff member etc.
  3. For people who have done a step challenge before, offer a choice of ways for them to make it more challenging. A personal goal. For some, it may be to run 1000 of their 5000 steps or to do those steps with a family member, or to do them before work. Let them decide on how they will provide evidence of having achieved their goal and/or put everyone in a ‘portal’ and have them post their evidence.

Improve Accessibility

  1. Cater for wheelchair users. As a rough guide, 10,000 steps is converted to 3333 meters. Talking with wheelers will reveal other important information that can impact their ability to reach distance goals and to establish what would be important and motivating to them.
  2. Encourage workplaces who are rolling out generic step challenges to have an exercise professional on hand. they can help determine what is safe, viable and effective for individuals. Exercise pros can quickly see where the red flags are, how to cater for them and how to measure results to help make reports spectacular. Being able to adjust step goals to meet those with chronic conditions to those who are super-fit is essential. (If I were a personal trainer, I’d list this as a service on your website btw. Just saying.)
  3. Instead of a step challenge, convert the steps to distance or time. Allow people to complete it via any method they like, providing it’s under their own steam. This could include swimming, kayaking, cycling, etc.

The other benefits to a step challenge

So apart from all the benefits above, and as a way to raise money for charity, there are other great reasons to run a step like challenge. Here are a few examples.

The LOVE NZ CHALLENGE was a virtual challenge I built back in 2012 to:-

  • support our community. It was not long after the Earthquake in Christchurch, NZ. I and many others were looking for ways to help those that did not go to gyms or to organised, paid for, fitness sessions, whether that was because they didn’t have the money, the clothes, were intimidated by those environments or otherwise have access to them.
  • help connect people with local health and fitness services and make it easier for people to try those services out.
  • show case the newly completed Te Araora trail and prompt some of them to do it!

The way it rolled.

People updated their distances each week, and for every 50-100km people they travelled under their own steam, some information was revealed about the equivalent distance on the Te Araroa trail.

People sent in photos when they walked real sections of the trail.  Certificates were given out along the way as well as spot prizes. These included lots of gym memberships and vouchers for group fitness classes – which is how the connection element with the local providers came to be. It was wonderfully successful other than the amount of back end work it was for me. Being too busy with other projects, I only ran it for a year.

Walk with a refugee

This is one of my favourite step challenges. What a way to help people connect!

I think it could also work well to support numerous groups of people in our community and at times when reaching out to those groups is particularly important.

Click on the pic to make it larger to read the deets, and if you are in Christchurch, NZ you can join in on this one.

Helpful apps to create your own challenge with

I think if you can avoid an app until 2021 do! Why 2021? Because hopefully by then they will be cheaper, easier to use, less buggy, and include more metrics that are important beyond step count and distance.

If you’re dead keen to use something before 2021, check out My Virtual Mission. Essentially it allows you to create a ‘distance’ challenge. Entrants can upload photos which means, if you were dishing out points for instance, to those who got in some lunchtime sun whilst walking, they could post a photo as evidence. If you wanted their heart rate to get up to 80% of their max, they could take a screenshot and upload that.

I’ve heard mixed reviews about it, but because you will be paying good dosh for it my thoughts are they will get back to you quickly to sort any user issues out.

The workplace role

For workplaces:  A note on the goals of your challenges

While I am the biggest fan ever of health and fitness challenges,  it’s not exactly a workplace’s role to roll out challenges where the aim of them is increased fitness levels. At least not beyond what is required to perform a job. Nor weight loss challenges. However,  step challenges are usually promoted with those two things being directly, or indirectly, claimed as a result of doing them.

Reasons for step challenges that may be more in line with our workplace role in helping staff be safe, happy and healthy may include those mentioned earlier; breaking up sedentary time, getting midday sun in winter, connecting with community activity providers, connecting with other staff members and walking with refugees.

Regardless, it is important that all these fitness type challenges are optional and that staff don’t feel uncomfortable by not jumping on board with them.  Having a whole range of ‘challenges’ with varying focuses can certainly help with that; allowing them to choose between them and setting up ‘system’ as we have done with our ’12 months of Challenges’ (which also includes the ‘A K A Day challenge’ and our functional fitness ‘Survive’ programme, so that there are several paths to success.

Please get in touch if you have any thoughts or ideas on all of this or any other health and fitness challenges.  Have fun. Broni Mac

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