Ongoing events, rewards and other incentives may rev up employee participation and boost results in a workplace walking program, a U.S. study finds.
In a nine-month comparison of workplace wellness programs with and without "enhanced" features, researchers from Pennsylvania health insurer Independence Blue Cross found participants in the enhanced programs logged more steps, lost more weight and reported more improvement in energy and mood.
"Giving out rewards as simple as tokens generated a lot of camaraderie among the employees," said lead author Dr. Aaron Smith-McLallen, a social psychologist at Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia.
"We noticed that employees motivated each other," he told Reuters Health. "They even started their own walking groups and went on weekend walks together."
Researchers compared groups of employees at companies that were participants in the Independence Blue Cross Wellness Partner program. In all, 13 groups of employees ranging in age from 19 to 77 years were randomly assigned to either the standard walking program or an enhanced version.
All participants received pedometers to log their daily steps, and each week they logged into a website to upload that data. Two weeks before the program started, then three, six and nine months into it, all participants also got physical health screenings and answered questionnaires about their mood, stress levels and overall health.
The standard walking program included flyers and posters to be distributed in the workplace, and a toolkit for employers with suggestions for optional ways to motivate employees to participate.
The enhanced program included all these as well as monthly rewards for employee participation, coaching, feedback, competitive biweekly challenges and monthly wellness workshops.
A total of 474 people participated in the study, roughly half in the standard walking program and half in the enhanced version.
Employees in both groups increased their step counts during the first 10 weeks, according to the results in American Journal of Health Promotion. But step counts started to decline in the standard program group after week 10.
Overall, people in the enhanced program averaged 726 more steps per day and were more likely to meet the recommended 10,000 steps a day compared to the standard group.
Even at the end of the study, participants in the enhanced program were logging almost 1,000 steps a day more, on average, than those in the standard program. The enhanced group also tended to log into the website and enter their step counts more often than the standard group.
In all groups, men who upped their step count by at least 1,000 per day compared to the beginning of the study lost an average of 3.8 pounds and women who did the same lost an average 2.1 pounds.
A higher average number of steps was also tied to improved energy levels, mood and sense of overall health.
It's hard to know which part of the program was really the key ingredient to improvement, said Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who was not part of the study.
"The challenge with these interventions is to disentangle the pieces of the intervention, to figure out which components, like feedback and incentives, had an impact," Volpp said.
Still, the results are encouraging, he said. "When you get people to engage in a walking program like this, they get excited about it and that can rub off on others."
For people who want to increase exercise, or want to start exercising, walking is an easy way to do it, Smith-McLallen said.
"You don't have to do it in a brisk way or elevate your heart rate," he said. "Just increasing the number of steps will have a lot of impact."