Keeping It Simple: 5 Tips for Effective, Engaging Work Fitness Challenges

HR managers are often confounded when their wellness programs experience less-than-expected employee engagement, but they should take heart — engagement can be a fickle metric.

Employees sign up and start with enthusiasm, only to steadily decline. Once in decline, trying to lure an employee back into the fold can be tricky. In our experience, HR managers’ first reaction is to offer more wellness options, but this is not answer.

We work with companies to help create fitness challenges, something that has quite often proven itself to be an effective tactic in increasing engagement. The excitement generated via competition and the drive to best others can be very persuasive, in generating sign-ups and sustaining involvement over the course of a program.

Participants engaged in fitness competitions have also shown a propensity to sign up for other wellness program offerings in an effort to increase their performance in the competition as well as to achieve their overall health and fitness goals.

The goal: pay attention to your health

However, running an effective fitness challenge can be, in a word, challenging. In my experience, the single most important element for engagement in such challenges is simplicity. If you try to attack too many issues at once, it will bring failure to a campaign quickly.

Asking employees to track weight, steps, calories, activity minutes, and the amount of sleep they get is ludicrous. I wouldn’t even do that, and I run a wellness company! The goal instead is just to get people to pay attention to their health, not turn everyone into Jack LaLanne.

Just keep it simple. Work on one thing at a time. Unfortunately, “keep it simple” is easier said than done, so here are a few helpful tips to reduce complexity and maximize participation.

1. Start simple. Ramp up

There’s an old adage: “Ask someone to do five things, and they’ll do nothing. Ask them to do one thing, and they’ll do that and one other.”

Challenges are most effective when they allow people to focus and compete on just one metric. Rather than trying to boil the ocean, focus on getting people to make a single change. Instead of a combination activity/walking/weight-loss challenge, do separate individual challenges throughout the year.

Not only does this make your job easier, it also allows you to strategically focus your communications and supporting programs. For instance, during your weight loss challenge, focus attention on your Weight Watchers work offering. During your activity challenge, offer tips on “10-minute desk workouts” or activities in your fitness center. During your walking challenge, tap into grassroots efforts around charity walks in which your employees are likely already engaged.

2. Minimize rules

If engagement is hard, don’t make participating even harder; keep the barrier to entry low.

Make it easy for people to report their metrics — whether its weight, steps or something else. Don’t make people jump through extra hoops to verify their results or report at particular place and time.

From the participant’s standpoint, if reporting is hard, they are less likely to do it. If you fear cheating, examine your incentive structure. Prizes should be attractive, but not too attractive. Generous prizes are great motivators, but they can actually encourage cheating.

3. Make it make sense

Speaking of incentives, they should be easy to understand, not burdened by cumbersome rules or calculations. There are limitless ways to structure incentives, but pick one or two for any individual challenge. I like it when my clients structure overall team competitions around donating to the charity of the winning team’s choice. It’s so simple and makes everyone feel good.

For interim incentives, I like very small awards that encourage participation. Try weekly random prize drawings for participants. If outcomes are your focus, keep it fair. Recognize not just the top-performers, but those who have strived hard and done well.

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Finally, keep incentives fitness-focused, which discourages cheating and supports the goals of the program.

4. Focus on team

Teams work. They add camaraderie and accountability without making a competition too cutthroat.

My first recommendation is to structure teams around location, department, floor, or some other work unit that requires little effort for you to organize and simplifies participation for your workforce.

I do not recommend making employees form their own teams, though some might argue this would increase engagement given the “viral effect” of employees recruiting others. What this actually does is make signing up harder, since a large portion of participants now have to go recruit others. If participation is a concern, why make it harder to join the fun?

Again, keep it simple for your participants and yourself. Put motivated people to work in more productive ways as wellness champions or team leaders.

5. Be realistic

HR managers planning wellness competitions should keep expectation in check.

Expect initial enthusiasm followed by some leveling off around week four. This is only natural; we’re all human. People get sick, or busy, or just run out of steam. If leveling off happens and you’re able to track individual participation, maybe reach out to those who haven’t participated in a couple weeks. Alternatively, you could introduce mid-program incentives to jump start things again.

Note: 12 weeks is an ideal time frame for weight-loss challenges; six or eight weeks for other competition types.

Whatever the outcome, always remember competitions are all about moving employees toward healthier overall lifestyles and attitudes, not the competition itself. You are trying to move the needle. You are not going to turn your workforce in to Olympic athletes overnight. Don’t turn it into a decathlon.

Keep it simple. Make it easy. Encourage engagement. And succeed.

Nicholas Tolson is CEO and co-founder of FitFeud, a leading corporate wellness technology provider with the goal of making fitness and health fun. FitFeud has helped clients such as Indiana University Health, KPMG, ClubCorp, and others lose tons of weight, walk hundreds of thousands of miles, and log millions of minutes of activity through the motivating power of competition. Nicholas is a self-described "reluctant runner," "Insanity" workout devotee, and popcorn addict. Contact him at nicholas@fitfeud.com.

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