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Give Workers Some Fun Walking Off Their Fat

CHICAGO ( MainStreet) -- Every day seems to bring more hand-wringing about the expanding American waistline. Thanks to our fat-laden diets and largely sedentary lifestyle, we're heavier and more out-of-shape than ever. And all that weight is a heavy burden on American businesses that pay some portion of their employees' health care costs.

But how do you encourage workers to take better care of themselves? Multipronged wellness programs have become a staple of large corporations' benefit plans, offering everything from in-house gyms to smoking-cessation clinics. Small companies may not have the money or personnel to undertake a full-scale wellness initiative, but there are still simple steps employers can take to nudge workers toward a healthier lifestyle.

The key word here is "steps." Because more and more research has shown that for people who get little to no regular physical exercise, simply moving around can make a dramatic impact in overall health. The trick is to figure out how that movement can be integrated into the average workday.

Sure, it's great if you can run a few miles over lunch or sweat through a 6 a.m. spinning class. But people who usually sit for hours at a stretch can improve their health simply by walking around: strolling the office halls, visiting neighboring cubicles, even pacing back and forth by their desk while talking on the phone.

Company-sponsored walking programs have become an increasingly popular way to blend such activities into the daily office routine. The good news for small businesses is that Web-based walking challenges can be set up easily and affordably, with features that bring employees together to work toward a common goal.

Two of the leading companies offering such programs are Walker Tracker and Walkingspree, both of which offer programs aimed at small businesses, priced at less than $100 per employee per year. Clients get their own secure website portal where employees enter how many steps they've taken each day (measured by pedometer), with participants often working in teams and competing challenges to win rewards. Walking competitions can be set up as a one-time event, or integrated into an ongoing program.

"The Walker Tracker program is designed as a template, in order to match with the culture of each company," president David Mays says. "Social networking is built in to the experience, so each person can interact with their friends or team and blog about their progress. It's more than just a wellness event. It becomes a team-building exercise."

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