Why taking part in ‘healthy’ competition is good for our wellbeing

It’s no surprise to anyone that engaging in regular physical activity is good for us… Physically, it helps to keep us healthy; mentally, it can help with symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. We also know that exercise is important for healthy brain aging. Therefore, it’s important that for our health and wellbeing, we do our best to stay as active as possible.

However, of course this is easier said than done as things in our daily lives can get in the way. This may be part of the reason why around 37% of adults in high-income countries are classed as physically inactive. Often one of the biggest barriers to regular activity is our busy schedules, and particularly our working lives. Not only do we spend so much of our time at work, but research has found that 84% of those working hours are spent sedentarily – therefore contributing to our difficulty in remaining active.

This is what Paths for All (a Scottish charity based in Stirling) have set out to change, through their workplace programme, the Step Count Challenge. With an 8-week challenge in Spring, and a 4-week challenge in Autumn each year, this biannual event encourages staff in workplaces across the country to ‘ditch the desk’ and instead do some exercise. The challenge itself tasks teams of five colleagues to do the most activity possible and compete to be the team at the top of both the national leader board, and their own workplace leaderboard. Although the leaderboard is registered with step counts as the units, the challenge isn’t solely based on how far people walk, as the site also allows people to record running, cycling, swimming and yoga, and automatically converts this to a step count equivalent.

Image Credit: Samuel Warne

By combining teamwork and competition, the challenge helps to motivate participants to do more exercise and can also begin to bring a more active culture into a workplace. Previous research investigating the challenge found that motivation increased following participation, and so did the step counts, with data showing participants were doing the equivalent to over an hour extra walking by the end of the challenge compared to beforehand (Niven et al, 2021).

The Step Count Challenge is now the subject of ongoing research within the University, with the health effects of participation forming the interest of Sam Warne’s PhD project, funded by the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences and Paths for All. In an interdisciplinary collaboration between the School of Medicine and the School of Psychology & Neuroscience, supervised by Prof. James Ainge, Prof. Gozde Ozakinci (University of Stirling) & Dr Andrew Williams, working together with Paths for All, the research has already examined the physical fitness and mental wellbeing of challenge participants, finding positive associations and suggesting that, as expected, the extra activity is beneficial (unpublished). Their most recent research is looking at whether there are any cognitive benefits to participation as well. Aside from looking at the overall changes in health and well-being, the team is also interested in the experience of the challenge and the factors that affect participation and engagement. To look at this they have interviewed previous participants, to try and gain a real insight into their experiences and how they approached the challenge, with a view to try and uncover why it is that the Step Count Challenge seemingly works so well to change behaviour and make people ditch the desk.

Image Credit: Samuel Warne

The next challenge is coming up very soon, kicking off on May 1st – and there’s still plenty of time to get involved and sign up! The University of St Andrews has been participating for a number of years, and consistently enters a large number of teams, so our leaderboard is quite competitive, but maybe you’ve got what it takes to win!