Step Challenges

Step and walking Challenges are prolific in magazines, in the app store, online, at workplaces and gyms.  While they can certainly help raise money for a good cause and get people moving more, they often fail their users in the most crucial of ways – by not improving people’s health and fitness.

In good news, making these Challenges more effective is not hard.


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.

And apologies, I use a capital ‘C’ even though not grammatically correct to make it easier to distinguish between Challenges (the game or programme) and challenges, being the hurdles within them!


Part 1: Why step Challenges fail us

Step and walking 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 fitness i.e., their ‘heart-lung’ fitness, will improve with a 10,000 a day step Challenge. That’s likely because people equate being more active with being fitter, and for many people, 10,000 steps will be more than what they are currently doing. But here’s the clincher. Increasing activity isn’t what makes people fitter.

To improve heart-lung fitness, to get fitter, people’s heart rate needs to go up and they need to get huffy puffy.     The thing is, it’s easy to walk 10,000 steps and not huff or puff at all.  Retail shop workers, factory floor workers, teachers and nurses regularly walk 20,000+ steps in a day but can clock up next to next to no, huffy puffy, exercise minutes.

2. We think we will lose weight

When it comes to activity, the more our heart rate goes up, the more calories we burn, the more weight we lose.  There are exceptions to the rule, but that’s the guts of it for most people.

The problem is that it is possible to walk 10,000 steps with little change in heart rate. The problem is exasperated when people increase eat or drink more to match what they think has been an increase in energy expenditure from their walk, but guesstimate incorrectly and consume more than they have expended.

If we don’t mention the importance of heart rate, we are more likely going to end up with disappointed and despondent people, particularly those we most wanted to engage.  People who may have only been doing 3000 steps a day, for whom 10,000 steps was a very daunting and large commitment and who have spent two or three hours walking each evening, to clock up their 10,000 steps, sacrificing time with their family because they expected significant results from their efforts, yet after a month or three they see no change to their weight! The same story could be told for those expecting blood pressure and cholesterol improvements.

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 new clients down to any one thing when it came to achieving weight loss, it would be them knowing about the importance of their heart rate.

Thankfully, it’s now extremely easy to know what our heart rate is the whole time we out walking and to set goals around it. 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, and ideally in ways in which that they aren’t already moving and/or with a bit of intensity.

Someone doing 10,000 steps in large hits, accumulating them all before or at lunchtime, does not, as far as research shows, combat the problems associated with sitting at a desk, driving a bus, standing on a factory line or doing not a lot of other movement for the rest of the day.

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

It’s easy add this into a step Challenge. 1000 steps every hour for instance.

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

Most step Challenges are easy to understand and easy to roll out. There are clear goals, and entrants know when they have succeeded.  These are indeed their biggest selling features next to ‘increasing activity levels’ and most enticing for most workplaces.

However, those characteristics are not what will make them successful in all the ways that are important to improving people’s health and fitness and getting quality engagement.  They are what makes them sell and what are easiest to create.  There needs to be more depth otherwise it would be the only programme we’d ever need. The take-away is to beware programmes that sell themselves on those three features alone.

5. Workplace reports look great

For those in charge of the health and wellness programs at a workplace, step Challenges are additionally appealing when they include posters, t-shirts and medals with a percentage of the entry fee going to a great cause.  Heaps of staff will sign up, most will cross the finish line, many may increase activity levels.  Doing it in teams will be an option and it will be easy to get one or two photos of staff participating in the Challenge for the newsletter.  Your report could look awesome – high participation levels, nice pics.

Except has anyone got happier, healthier, more productive, or fitter? Has it empowered people, or even challenged them?  Or did it just tick off what people were already doing? Was it team building or did staff just have the options to do it in groups? Was there accountability or did people just say what they did, and no-one would know, or care if they did or not, one way or the other?  That’s the stuff you don’t need to put in the report but it’s the stuff matters the most.

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! Yes, they used to, and yes, they took it out, because there was no science behind it.

Indeed, 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” because the symbol for the number 10,000 looked 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 if they help people to reach their goals in the first place.  Otherwise, it can slam the door on people bothering to have any more attempts at getting fit/losing weight etc., because this one, the one they just did, which they were told was so simple, perfect for beginners, well it didn’t work.

9. They cater for all abilities and fitness levels

Giving everyone a 10,000 step a day type of a Challenge does not cater for the many who are currently only managing 2000 or 3000 steps a day and for whom an extra 1000 may be a push enough, or to those doing more than 10,000 steps who are then not Challenged at all, nor those whose chronic condition means one day that may pan out well and the next day not at all.

10. Apps engage people

Some apps and online portals do and they certainly have the potential to, but I don’t think a pre-requisite to a Challenge working is an online portal, or that engagement with that feature is a sign of a Challenge’s success.   At the time of writing, having an online portal or being in an app is far more of a marketing feature than a feature of substance.  Your local fitness professionals would get higher engagement and better results.

Still, if you are going to use pre-boxed apps, check the reviews. Even Challenges at $50 a person had overwhelmingly disheartening reviews.  Part of that will be because :-

  • The apps have been designed by app developers and not in conjunction with exercise professionals or behavioural modification experts.
  • Apps can 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.
  • Free apps are overflowing with lots of advertising. That can quickly disengage people. Thankfully, it’s easily fixed, just pay for the no-adverts version if it has one.
  • Apps using good gamification principles can help us take more steps and do more healthy activity by rewarding us with badges, points and superpowers, but none of that matters if we can circumvent the activity by buying those rewards with money!

Better apps and online portals will arrive because to make better ones will get easier.  Some already include heart rate goals and hourly move goals, drawing on the data that Apple and similar wearables collect and the robustness around accountability will improve. In a nutshell, the more those devices collect, the more creative, and helpful the Challenges around them can be.  Layer on a local fitness professional to the mix, and you could well have a very beneficial programme.


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 turns them off trying anything else.


Part 2: How to make step challenges more effective

As a starter we can just provide more education around how to use step and walking Challenges to achieve personal goals, using the information above.   That may be in something as simple as a handout or via a workshop run by a local exercise professional.

Here are a few other ways to ramp up any Challenge using six example goals.

1. Goal: To do more steps.

If you just want people to walk more every day then consider having entrants 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 speed up the pace to get another 1000 in and get huffy, puffy in the process.  Win-win.

2. Goal: To improve cardiovascular fitness

To see improvements in cardiovascular fitness, encourage people to get huffy puffy for a percentage of the steps they’re taking.

If you are able to get more specific it can help.   As an example, if my heart rate is normally 95 when I am walking, then a goal of getting it to 110 for 1000 of my daily steps could have some great benefits. Another option, if my pace is normally 13 minutes a km I could aim to walk faster, at 12 minutes a km,  for 1000 steps a day.

If you want to get this specific you will want to call in an exercise professional who can access how viable and safe those types of ideas are and whip up some recommendations for your team. For most, simply challenging people 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, 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 and/or extra ‘points’ to people who carry 5 kilograms of weight in a backpack for 1000 of their steps. Again, getting an exercise pro in to give some guidance around the idea, how to warm and cool down for this type of carry on etc., will be invaluable.

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 100 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 detailed in no.2, i.e., by getting huff puffy and raising our heart rate which helps us to burn more calories.

The additional point to note is that when people are going upstairs, inclines or hills, carrying extra weight in their backpack, or doing short sprints, those people are more likely to build muscle.   These types of workouts also have us burning more calories for longer post-workout than ones that don’t involve pushing the muscles in this way.

As exercise professionals know, muscle, while great for burning body fat,  is more dense than bodyfat, and can have us weighing more on the bathroom scales, even though we are trimming down and losing bodyfat.

Part 3: The leftover stuff

Avoiding drop off

  1. If people don’t reach their step goals on one day allow them to make up for it the next day, or to do all ‘missed steps’ in the final week. This will help keep on board those entrants who miss a day or two and then pull out altogether thinking there’s no point, and/or they can’t ‘win’ now.
  2. Set up a points system for instance: earn 100 points for meeting a daily step goal then provide alternative, fun and more unique to your workplace, ways to make up for lost points but with your desired outcomes in mind.  50 points for playing table-tennis with Joe in accounts? 50 more points if you beat him?
  3. For people who have done a step Challenge before, are bored, or not sufficiently Challenged by the Challenge, offer a choice of ways for them to make them harder. Could they run 1000 of their 5000 steps, or do them with a family member, or before work with Joe from accounts!

Improve accessibility

  1. Cater for wheelchair users. As a rough guide, 10,000 steps equal 3333 meters. Talking with wheelers will reveal factors that can impact their ability to reach distance goals and to establish what would be important and motivating to them.
  2. Consult with an exercise professional to help determine what is safe, viable and effective for individual staff members. They’ll quickly see where the red flags are, how to physiologically cater for everyone and to measure results to help make for spectacular reports.
  3. Instead of a step Challenge – convert the steps to distance or time and allow people to do it via any method they like, swimming, kayaking, cycling etc., providing it’s under their own steam.

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 LOVENZ Challenge I built was designed to:-

  • showcase the newly completed Te Araora trail
  • support our community to connect people to local health and fitness services, after the Earthquakes in Christchurch

How it worked

Entrants updated their distances each week, and for every 50-100km people they travelled under their own steam, ‘fascinating facts’ were revealed about the equivalent distance on the Te Araroa trail.

Entrants could only count steps when walking or running, i.e., not incidental steps at work etc. They sent in photos if they went and walked real sections of the trail. There were loads of spot prizes, including gym memberships, pool passes, vouchers for group fitness classes and I sent our certificates when they completed each island.

People could sign up anytime, for free, and had 12 months to complete the distance.

Walk with a refugee

What a neat way to help people connect!

I think it could also work well to support numerous other groups of people in our community (war vets, those with disabilities, injured, ill, etc.,)  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

At the moment there is none that I would recommend. I think you are better off creating your own, or having an exercise professional help you.

I’m sure some good ones aren’t far off, maybe 2022, that are cheaper, easier to use, less buggy than the ones I’ve used so far, and which will include more metrics that are important beyond step count and distance.

If you’re dead keen, check out My Virtual Mission. 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 them 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 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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