Virtual Race Gets Workers Walking

A multi-national workplace fitness event got workers out of their chairs by racing around the globe, virtually.

Workplace fitness initiatives are generally having mixed results.

Reporting on a massive, multi-site international "race around the world" experiment based in Australia and India, a team of researchers said their program was a success.

Their analysis of the number of steps walked and pounds shed over the course of four annual international worksite-based mHealth pedometer challenges was presented April 3 at the American College of Cardiology’s 65th Scientific Session & Expo in Chicago, IL.

The report showed an overall increase in activity levels in the nearly 70,000 employees taking part in 64 countries.

The study, International Mobile-Health Intervention on Physical Activity, Sitting, and Weight: The Stepathlon Cardiovascular Health Study, is published in the April 2016 Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

During his presentation on behalf of co-authors in Adelaide and Mumbai Anand Ganesan, MBBS, PhD, of Flinders University of South Australia, called the simultaneous 100-day “Stepathlon” event unprecedented. (photo above at left)

“To put this into perspective there are a number of firsts here: This is the largest published mobile health dataset. This is the first study in mobile health literature that examines outcome data in patients on all populated continents. To our knowledge, our study is the first to provide comparative data on the effectiveness of this kind of intervention in both the developed and developing world,” Ganesan said.

Participants were grouped in worksite-based teams of five. Their employers provided inexpensive pedometers (the cost per participant to the employer was $50 in India and $60 elsewhere.)

Collegial competition was maintained through mobile and desktop use of the Stepathlon interactive platform that allows for personal goal-tracking while incorporating a social media component.

Each employee was encouraged to increase daily steps thereby helping the team complete a virtual race around the world. The 69,219 subjects, average age 36, were predominately male and competed in 1,401 cities.

Data were collected in a self-reported survey form and showed participants increased their amount of walking by more than 3,500 steps per day, exercised nearly one additional day per week, lost just over 3 pounds and reduced their time spent sitting by about 45 minutes per day on average.

Employee health initiatives are becoming more common in the U.S., particularly in health care employers.

In 2012 Northwell Health (then Northshore-LIJ) in Long Island, New York pledged airfare to Paris and hotel accommodations for the first team to “Walk to Paris” by logging 72 million steps in the hospital’s pedometer challenge.

The program was such a success hospital administration got carried away at the awards ceremony and gave four grand prizes instead of one, so 40 employees got Parisian vacations.

There were no such glamorous incentives offered by Ganesan and his colleagues, who have a more quotidian goal in mind.

“We’re facing a crisis of increasing body mass index around the world,” Ganesan said, “We need large-scale mass participation programs that can reach people at cardiovascular disease risk around the world.”

These programs have to have the capacity to reach people doctors do not see in a clinic, or who can’t be seen by a health professional, he added.

Using mobile health technology “allows geographically distributed implementation in socio-culturally diverse and socioeconomically diverse settings,” he said, adding “I think that’s the real lesson of these data and that’s the real lesson of our program.”