Walking or pedometer challenges such as the yearly Global Corporate Challenge, which started this week, are a popular way to get large numbers of people moving. While walking has many health benefits, evidence has found the program doesn’t target people who need it, and people swap high-intensity exercise for more steps.
Participants in the Global Corporate Challenge are organised into work teams that compete against other teams to accrue the most steps. During the 16-week challenge, participants receive weekly encouraging emails to keep up their interest. However, because of the costs involved, many workplaces set up their own walking challenges, which is easy enough as you only need pedometers (or other activity-tracking devices) and a spreadsheet to record the daily steps taken.
Reaching the right people?
There are indications these walking challenges, while a good idea, are not getting inactive people to become active. A recent study found 92% of participants were already sufficiently active, according to physical activity guidelines, before the challenge began.
The guidelines state that for good health we should engage in least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (such as playing basketball or running), in addition to muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days each week.
Swapping the run for a walk
There is also anecdotal evidence the intensity of movement is reduced in favour of accumulating more steps. Participants told us they swapped a faster but shorter run or gym session for a longer walk to collect more steps. However, there are benefits to moving at a higher intensity, when the heartbeat increases and we start to huff and puff, especially for heart health.
In one soon-to-be-published study an organisation created its own walking challenge. We measured stair use at the same time, guessing the participants would also use the stairs more. We measured stair use with infra-red monitors before the walking challenge and then again during the challenge.
We were pleased to see an increase in stair use, until we looked at the direction in which the participants had taken the stairs. They were walking down the stairs more but climbing the stairs less than before the walking challenge.
This is a problem because climbing stairs is considered vigorous physical activity, similar in intensity to jogging or playing football. These activities are around eight times the body’s metabolic rate, or the amount of energy the body uses when resting or sleeping, or five to six times more than when sitting. Walking down the stairs, on the other hand, is not much different to walking on a flat surface and expends only twice the energy of when you’re sitting.
So how do you make the most of your walking challenge?
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take part in walking challenges. Walking is a great way to exercise since there is no need for special equipment, clothes or location, it can be done for transport, you often don’t need to take a shower afterwards, it suits most people of all ages, and it can be very social.
Just make sure you’re not cutting out more vigorous exercise in favour of walking. Increase the intensity by walking a little faster than normal. Make a game out of overtaking other pedestrians. Try timing how long it takes to climb the stairs at work, or walk a particulate route and see if you can shave off a few seconds or minutes each week.
Find hillier routes to walk, or find as many stairs to climb as you can along your way. Walk up the escalator, or take the stairs up. Find a person in the crowd and try to get to the top of the stairs before they do. Mix it up by walking backwards to use other sets of muscles.
Many short distances add up. Walk around the workplace, grab a glass of water, or go for a lunchtime walk. This also has the benefit of breaking up prolonged sitting.
If you are not used to walking a lot, ease into it. Starting with shorter distances and build up as you go. Wear comfortable footwear and do make sure you listen to your body: if something hurts, take it easy. It can also be good to warm up your muscles and joints before walking fast and to stretch a little afterwards.
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