Steps-based contests are so 2010. They’re also unfair, unentertaining, and misleadingly unwelcoming. Sure, stepping contests were once cutting-edge. And so was my electric typewriter.

Roughly a decade ago, when relatively inexpensive devices started automatically tracking our steps, wellness vendors convinced themselves that they had discovered the holy grail of gamified health. “Whoever gets the most steps wins? Eureka!” they thought. Then they became complacent, stopped innovating, and instead focused on inventing a bunch of new themes, campaigns, and “journeys” (all based on, you guessed it: steps!).

If you’ve participated in any steps-based competitions, you know they can start out all fun and exciting. But you also know they quickly become worse than playing the card game “War” with a five-year-old. Actually, scratch that. War at least gives everyone the same blind odds of victory, but stepping competitions shaft swaths of people. If you use steps as the metric for contests, you:

1. Short-change the tall people. If Shaquille O’Neal (7’1”) and Prince (5’2”) both walk a mile, Shaq takes fewer steps. If they both walk for an hour, again, Shaq takes fewer steps. Why should the big fella’ get less credit just because his stride is so wide?

2. Exclude people who do non-impact activities. Swimming, yoga, spinning, and weightlifting, among other popular exercise activities, don’t create many “steps” as tracked by leading devices.

3. Create a contest in which the same people (the runners) win every time. Janet, who had double knee-replacement surgeries, will always lose to Jack, the dedicated marathoner.

If you’re Shaq, a swimmer, or Janet, it feels like office step competitions are rigged. And if you feel that way, why would you compete? (Hint: you wouldn’t.) And if rewards and special recognition are on the line in a game that’s rigged, why wouldn’t you complain? (Hint: you would.) And if only the runners, fitness nuts, and short people are participating, how can you expect to achieve lasting health-habit improvement on a large scale? (Hint: you can’t!)

If steps stink, what’s the alternative?

One solution is to emphasize activity time instead of steps. If Shaq and Prince get the same credit for being active for one hour, the competition is more even for all. Likewise, Janet, with her fragile knees, could spin for an hour to match Jack’s daily hour-long run. More people will play if more people believe they have a real shot at finishing strong.

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"Steps might be fun for one go-round, but then what?"

Another option is to let employees invent games that better match their actual interests and goals. Imagine that your office has a group of ultra-marathoners – you know – those sick, masochistic people who run 50 miles “just for fun.” They may want to do a stepping challenge or have a contest to see who racks up the most elevation change on two feet. But other employees might want to see who can eat the fewest fast–food meals, spend the most time with loved ones, or catch the most Zs. If it’s quantifiable and trackable and improves well-being, it should be gamifiable and includable.

Better yet, why force people to compete with each other when they could work together as a team? For example, you could create a contest in which your 500 employees need to log a million collective minutes of exercise within a four-week campaign. If they hit that goal together, your company donates $10,000 to a local animal shelter. And perhaps every employee who hits 100 individual hours of activity can take a paid day off to volunteer at the shelter. People love to work together toward a common goal, and this format holds employees accountable to each other. It’s no longer just about me, myself, and my fitness goals. It becomes about us, our company, and serving the community. That, in turn, improves corporate culture and gives wellness a higher meaning than sculpting nicer abs and tighter buns.

We could discuss an infinite variety of wellness games and health-habit-improvement goals … and that’s the point! While it’s convenient for corporate wellness vendors to pretend like steps are the be-all, end-all game, that notion is a total sham. Wellness programs only captivate participants over the long run if the games evolve and remain interesting over time. That, by the way, is how professional athletes stay engaged in their relentless pursuit of improvement. They constantly switch up their drills and training regimens to feel stimulated and challenged in different ways on different days. They don’t go the gym, field, or court and play the same game of War, again and again.

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"Wellness programs only captivate participants over the long run if the games evolve and remain interesting over time."

Steps stink, if they’re the only wellness competition available. Yes, some employees will flock to them. But they won’t instill massive, sustainable health habits to change countless lives and transform your culture. Steps might be fun for one go-round (unless you’re Shaq or Janet), but then what?

You can let your wellness partner continue to march you down the played-out path of step competitions (pun intended), or you can demand creative and thoughtful challenges with stimulating game mechanics. I say we ditch ye olde steps contests and make wellness fun again (for real this time). What do you say?

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