As the CEO of an all-natural gourmet food company, Dr. Keith Kantor prided himself on his staff’s healthy approach to eating and living. So vibrant was the culture of health within his company, his wellness program enjoyed an 80% engagement rate and, he says, and delivered a return on investment of $4 for every $1 spent.

So, when Mike Tinney, CEO of Fitness Interactive Experience (FIX), approached him about beta testing a new wellness challenge, Kantor said his first inclination was to say, “No.”

“We already had a really good program, but Mike said ‘Try it. It can’t hurt,’” says Kantor. “So, we did. Engagement went up to almost 100% immediately and our ROI went from 4 to 1 to 6 to 1.”

So what did the FIX program have that Kantor’s already wildly successful wellness program didn’t? Zombies, of course.

FIX’s corporate walking challenge, A Step Ahead, was developed by video game designers and uses real-world activity, such as a number of steps taken or other fitness activity, to translate into progress across a virtual game board over a 6-12 week period.

“Whether you’re racing to stay ahead of a chasing zombie horde to find a cure for the zombie outbreak or fleeing an alien invasion force in a race to take back Earth, A Step Ahead provides multiple story worlds to explore with your company,” the FIX website says.

“I never would have thought that being chased by zombies would get such a vast increase in engagement,” says Kantor. “They made it fun and before that it was all very sterile.”

Teamwork

Within the company, employees form teams, points are tallied and daily leaderboards are posted. The team aspect is key to wellness program engagement, says Tinney, because, “We break our promises to ourselves all the time. But when somebody else — a coworker or teammate — is depending on us to do something, and they are harmed by our neglect, we are much less prone to bail out on them.”

Kantor says the game has also improved absenteeism and the comradery within his company, as well.

“At our water cooler you hear co-workers joking and trash-talking. ‘My team is beating your team. We’re going to get you this time,” Kantor says.

When he took a vacation in December and wasn’t completing the daily activities that translated into tallied points and game progress, Kantor jokes, “I was getting e-mail from my staff saying, ‘The Zombies are almost up to you. We’re going to get you this time.’ I was getting trash e-mails from them the whole time.”

Carrie Camin, assistant vice president of Wellness for Methodist Health System in Texas, says the team aspect of the challenges also worked well within their company’s culture.

“You don’t want to let down your teammates,” she agrees. “There was a ripple effect in our company, as well — in that employees started including their co-workers and family with their challenges that weren’t even on their team,” she adds.

Methodist Health System piloted FIX’s UtiliFIT game activities in 2014, which also includes daily activities and fitness challenges texted or e-mailed to employees on an hourly basis.

“UtiliFIT addresses the ‘sitting problem’ by getting your employees up and active throughout the day,” the company says.

“It’s hard for health care workers to stay active and make healthy choices — they work nights, 12 hour shifts, and they are typically caregivers that put others’ needs before their own. It’s hard to find ways to help them help themselves,” says Camin.

A game with zombies (“walking dead people”) didn’t seem appropriate for their health care setting, Camin says, but Methodist Health System promoted an office challenge using micro exercises. Each one took only about 120 seconds and could be as easy as walking for 120 seconds or as challenging as doing pushups or squats.

“What appealed to me about the challenges was that not only could people participate on their own time schedule, but when participants register they get to choose the intensity based on their health status. So if you’re not very active, you can choose a beginner level,” she says.

What the challenge also does over time, she says, is increase the intensity and the length. “I started the challenge doing 20 pushups an hour, now I’m up to 55,” she says.

The simplicity of the program, she says, was appealing to the employees.

“We started promoting this around Christmas, when people are not really paying attention, and we had 120 registrations in the first hour,” she says. The company originally hoped for about 300 registrations in total for the pilot program, but Camin says they had so many registrations they finally had to cap it at 500.

“Seventy-five percent of them were active in it and participated in at least three challenges a day,” she says. Many completed eight challenges a day. The incentive, she adds, was small, $20 in your next paycheck. There were two ways to win – accumulating points and being the best team at completing activities.

Following its demo of the Zombie game, Kantor says his company Service Foods signed up with FIX and has been using their program for over a year and a half now.

Camin says her company is also planning a new challenge with the company. 

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