DIY: How Do I Organize A Step Challenge?

April 05, 2017


In on of our podcast episodes, we talked about how wellness programs are becoming a must-have, as more and more employees expect their employer to provide some wellness benefits. Yet, there’s this notion that you need to be a big corporation with a deep pocket to have a comprehensive program. This is simply not true.

Small companies can deliver a quality wellness program on a tight budget, and this is because of a simple principle: good employee wellness programs are ones filled with genuine care and the desire to help, not dollar bills.

Note: This is the first article of our Wellness On A Budget series, where we discuss the roadmap to organizing a wellness challenge while on a limited budget. Part II focuses on increasing engagement through communication, while part III will provide you with some inspiration on picking thoughtful yet affordable rewards for your program.

A step challenge is a program, usually organized at work, where people compete by taking steps throughout the day. There are two popular variations: (i) participants competing on bringing up their step count daily average (e.g., 7,000 steps/day) and (i) participants competing on hitting an overall step goal (e.g., 45,000 steps in 7 days). Regardless of the format, most step challenges should have a leaderboard (preferably real-time or near-time) for participants to check on their progress and ranking. To motivate participants, many organizers tie in a reward/incentive into the program for participation or hitting certain milestones.

In an effort to promote healthy living, the American Heart Association (AHA) designated the first Wednesday of April every year as National Walking Day. The tradition started back in 2007 and has been going strong ever since. Every year, the AHA creates resources to encourage individuals and organizations to embrace walking as a form of exercise. Their website also provides great advice specifically for organizations that can be used to kick start a walking program in any office!

As researchers continue to reveal the benefits of moving around and the importance of staying active, walking challenges are starting to become staples of many corporate wellness programs. Companies go as far as purchasing or subsidizing wearable devices for program participants. One of the most popular examples is Target’s decision to buy 335,000 Fitbits for its employees. However, let’s keep it real. Not all companies have the budget to provide expensive devices for every employee. Unless you work for a big corporation, these cool perks may be out of reach.

Does that mean small- and medium-sized companies cannot organize an engaging and effective walking challenge? Not necessarily! In fact, being able to bulk purchase activity trackers has very little to do with engagement in the program down the road. Forcing devices onto employees means putting them through an unnecessary learning curve to get used to a new technology that they may not want. This is the foundation of the rise of the Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) movement.

It is with this in mind that we’ve developed this series to help managers with a limited budget to kick start an office walking challenge. There are multiple approaches to organizing one, and you can get creative with your method. Below are two very popular options:

Note: This article primarily focuses on the logistical and technical side of running a walking challenge.  Keep an eye out for Part 2 of the series to learn how to improve engagement and morale through communication.


#1 The “Dinosaur” Method

This method can be very cheap (if you don’t count indirect cost) since it does not involve working with outside vendors. Additionally, it requires little technical know-how, since you will be working mostly with a white board and a marker or with spreadsheets, hence, the “Dinosaur” part.

First, you'd need to ask participants to report their miles and/or duration of their walks and aggregate all data into a leaderboard. The distance can be planned using Google Maps or free websites like MapMyWalk, and a timer can be used to keep track of the duration. However, if you’re going to offer prizes and need to determine winners (it’s a challenge after all), going with this old-school method will not be very efficient. The accuracy of the result relies heavily on employees’ honesty.

Maybe that’s not a problem for your company, and that you have a burning trust for your team members. If that’s the case, awesome! However, if the integrity of the results are important, then you can adapt the program to make it more manageable. For example, you can organize three walking groups a day (in the morning before work, during lunch break, and in the afternoon after work), each for 15 to 30 minutes. Employees can join whichever sessions works best for them (or multiple ones a day for brownie points). Toward the end of each session, participants can get a small stamp on the sign-up sheet to prove that they’ve finished the walk. The winners are the ones who clocked the most session with their peers.

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However, as mentioned above, the indirect cost (including employee hours spent on managing the program) can really add up when using this method. Managers should consider the pros and cons carefully before committing.


#2 BYOT (Optional: Connect To A Platform)

If you have some budget for your wellness program, but not quite enough to burn through like Target, this option might be for you. BYOT in the walking challenge context means allowing people to bring their tracking technology of choice to participate. As a company, you don’t have to put out a significant investment to bulk-purchase devices, since employees will be bringing their own trackers. Consider these survey results: 1 in 5 Americans owns a wearable device (40% for millennials) and another 45% are thinking about purchasing one next year (51% for millennials). It is very likely that most of your members already own one or are considering getting one for themselves.

Additionally, wearables are not a necessity for walking challenges. Many smartphones have accelerometers that can track users’ movements automatically and fitness applications supplement the effort nicely. People who don’t want to invest in a tracker can simply use a free app like Moves to record their walking sessions.



There are many devices and applications on the market, each with their own user interface, design, and functionality. For example, while the Fitbit Flex might be good for somebody who’s just starting out and doesn’t need many sport-specific features, more serious athletes might prefer to go with Garmin watches that focus on performance. Even under one brand, there are many different lines to target different market segments.

Similarly, in a diverse workplace, no two people have the same need or goal, so it doesn’t make much sense to make everybody use the same exact device. If people are forced to use a device that doesn’t resonate with them, they are much more likely to throw their hands in the air and say: “I give up!”

By encouraging employees to explore and bring in the technology that they’re most comfortable with, you are setting the program up for success. People don’t have to go through a learning curve typically present when they’re introduced to something new. The focus is now on creating good habits and not getting used to their wearable device. Once everybody has a tracking technology in place, there are multiple ways you can aggregate the data to make a leaderboard.


The Free Route

Because the social aspect might be the main source of motivation for some people, more and more applications are allowing users to share their statistics with friends and family, even with strangers! Some platforms take one step further to gamify the experience by building in some “friendly competition” and showing friends’ results in a ranking format. You can leverage on this social feature to create your own program leaderboard without having to hire a third-party vendor.

First, you’d need to have all participants synchronize their health data to a single platform that can track steps from a device or a phone like Fitbit.  The Fitbit app is free to download so users without a Fitbit device can participate free of cost.  By doing this, users will all be tracking their steps automatically and can join a challenge or become "friends" with other participants on the app, which will assign them to a leaderboard.

With this method, participants will benefit from automated tracking and employers benefit from real-time, hassle-free leaderboards. However, there’re multiple downsides to this approach. First, your challenge will be committed to a single app, which will exclude not compatible devices some employees have.  Also, you may be limited to just steps (no ability to incorporate distance or time).


Working With A Platform Provider

Companies with budget can look into working with third party vendors. With this option, employees will need to go through a one-time setup to sync their devices with the platform, and the provider will take care of the rest. Managers will then have access to a dashboard to see how their members are doing as well as analytics to measure the success of the program.  With quality vendors, employers will also have greater flexibility to customize programs.

While it might sound out-of-reach, working with vendors is not as expensive as you might think! Most programs’ pricing has a fixed administrative fee and a variable portion based on the number of users. When compare this up-front cost with the indirect fees of the Dinosaur method, the difference can be minimal. Additionally, some vendors have dedicated account managers to help with designing new challenges, creating content for distribution, and troubleshooting any technical problems that users might have. This takes a lot off of the manager’s plate, allowing them to focus on more pressing issues.

It is important that to choose a platform that can pull in statistics from multiple devices/applications. Since BYOT is the focus, the platform needs to be able to accommodate your employees’ technology of choice.


Parting Words

Navigating this ever-changing world of technology is difficult, and it might seem impossible to be on top of the trends. However, here’s a reassuring thought: while the technologies can be a great tool and will make your life much easier, they in themselves are not the solution. The real answer, as it turns out, is to create a strong culture that values health and well-being. Luckily, in most cases, this can be achieved with little to no budget.

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