CHICAGO (AP) -- A workplace exercise challenge using pedometers and social media in a global competition shows potential to improve health in a study involving almost 70,000 employees in 64 countries.

In the program, office teams compete against each other or with groups at companies in other countries to see who can take the most daily steps during a 100-day challenge. Workers post progress on a special social media website - for motivation and to egg on rival teams.

The study found workers on average increased their daily activity by 3,500 steps, exercised for almost one extra day per week, reduced sitting time by about 45 minutes daily, and lost about three pounds during the contests. Whether the changes were lasting isn't known.

The research was presented Sunday in Chicago at the American College of Cardiology's annual meeting and published online in the group's medical journal.

THE SKINNY

Dr. Anand Ganesan, a cardiologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia led the study. Researchers analyzed 2012-14 data on yearly contests involving the Stepathlon program, created by Stepathlon Lifestyle Pvt. Ltd., a Mumbai, India-based wellness company.

Participation was voluntary and increased each year; more than 20,000 blue-collar and white-collar workers worldwide were involved in the 2014 challenge.

Not all completed their programs although the number of dropouts isn't known, Ganesan said. Full data were available for almost 37,000 workers, a little over half the enrollees.

Workers in developed and developing nations participated, mostly in Asia but including Europe, North and South America, and Africa. Ganesan said that suggests similar programs could have benefits in countries with poor access to preventive health care.

"Getting people to be physically active and change their behavior is hugely challenging" worldwide, Ganesan said. He said the results show that using technology in a clever way has broad appeal and might be able to help fight the world's No. 1 killer: Heart disease causes 18 million deaths globally each year.

ANOTHER VIEW

Dr. Jeffrey Kuvin of Tufts Medical Center, vice chairman of the cardiology meeting, called the program novel and the results tantalizing given that short-term benefits were seen on such a large scale, although he said more follow-up is needed.

"If we can increase exercise and decrease sitting ... clearly we are going to make some headway in reducing cardiovascular risk," he said.

A TESTIMONIAL

Nikita Sharma, 28, a customer service agent for DHL Express in Mumbai participated in her company's Stepathlon challenge last year. In an email message, she said the program motivated her to change her lifestyle. During the program she achieved 12,000 steps and 45 minutes of exercise daily, including brisk walking, jogging and cycling. She has stuck with it and lost almost 8 pounds.

"I'm more energetic and have built better stamina as well," Sharma said.

THE LIMITATIONS

The study only looked at short-term results, so it isn't known if the program leads to lasting long-term health benefits. The study also lacked information on any changes in workers with high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels and other conditions that can lead to heart disease, although exercise is known to benefit those conditions.

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INDUSTRY TIES

Ganesan said he has no financial ties to Stepathlon. A top company executive is among the study co-authors but Ganesan said Stepathlon wasn't involved in funding or the study analysis. Several other co-authors have received consulting or research fees from makers of pedometers.