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."
The Walker Tracker system awards points for achievements; the client can determine how many points get awards (which can be anything from money, time off or the pedometer itself). Points are awarded for consistency and reaching goals, rather than simply steps achieved; points can also be earned for making an entry in the system, making daily journal entries or posting photos from a walk. Convincing certain key participants to sign up can make a huge difference in whether a walking program sticks, Mays says: "Having buy-in and sponsorship from upper management is very important. We also want to help find the natural cheerleaders and give them the tools to motivate other people." Walker Tracker's "giveaway" points, for example, reward people for leaving encouraging comments on others' posts. "The whole goal is to create a permanent lifestyle change," says Lisa Rousseau, vice president of member engagement for Walkingspree. "It's not one-size-fits all. You can't take a group of primarily overweight truck drivers and give them the same program as a group that has an on-site gym. We build the challenges and programs around the demographic of each organization." Walkingspree's programs include additional wellness content, including an online food tracker so you can see how many steps it will take to burn off that pizza you had for lunch. The company also provides clients with USB, medical-grade pedometers, so participants can simply upload their walking stats. "It's very important to have validated data," Rousseau says. Walkingspree clients have asked for competitions pitting department against department and branch office against branch office; the company even set up a challenge between two small-business clients looking for someone to compete against. Walking challenges can also be set up as a unified group mission, such as adding up everyone's steps to see how long it takes to "walk" across the Sahara or the United States. "Some people are extremely competitive, while others want a more personal goal," says Rousseau, noting that participants can opt out of competitions and simply track their own individual progress. "We want to fit everybody's needs." Whatever the motivation, competitions and goal-setting give employees something to work toward, a concrete reason to increase their daily step count. It may sound like a cliche, but in a walking program everyone who participates is a winner, health-wise. "The goal is always to reach the at-risk employees," Mays says. "We always tell our clients: You're not trying to reward the marathon runners. It's the people who don't get off the couch who will benefit most."