The Fitness Challenge Handbook

Designing The Challenge

Popular fitness challenge awards and the pros and cons of each

Setting Challenge Awards

Setting challenge awards is a surprisingly difficult task. At first glance, it might seem easy to come up with something like: $200 to the champion, $100 to the runner up and $50 for third place. While this has certainly been used and with much larger awards, it may not be the best fit for your challenge. To explain, here are some of the popular awards and the pros and cons to each:

Cash Awards

Cash awards would be the number one incentive if participants were asked what they prefer and it would be simple to administer. However, you should try to link the award with promoting a healthy lifestyle and, whenever possible, to the challenge itself. An example would be providing a gift card to an athletic shoe store after winning a walking challenge.
The bigger issue with providing cash awards is that, for self-reported, “honor system” challenges, your participants may be more likely to enter inflated numbers simply to win the prize.

Gift Cards

As stated above, gift cards can be an effective motivator for your challenge and can be linked to a healthy lifestyle if the card in question is for a sporting goods store, health food store, etc. It may also be possible to get a discount on the gift cards by having the merchant sponsor the challenge.
The biggest drawback to providing gift cards is that it must be generic enough to be valued by any participant. Therefore, a membership to women’s-only gym might not be the best incentive.

Time Off

Providing an extra day or two of vacation could be a very good motivator for your employees. The positives are that, for employers, the day off is “free” from a salaried, sunk-cost perspective and employees most likely would put a high value on it. While not necessarily linked to the wellness program or a healthy lifestyle, you could also include a session with a personal trainer during the day off.
Time off can work to your advantage in other ways as well. Instead of simply providing a day off to the winner of your challenge, you could also provide an extra 15 or 20 minutes of lunch break to participants who would like to join a daily walking group. While this is not an incentive to win the challenge, it is a strong incentive to participate.

Health Care Premiums

Reductions in health care premiums or matching payment into health savings accounts are an excellent method for incentivizing employees to participate in your fitness challenge. It is not only tightly-linked to the wellness challenge for your participants; it is tightly-linked to health care premiums for your company. When both employees and upper-management see the same benefit, everybody wins.


While this would probably not be the extent of your award, providing recognition for winners and participants in your company newsletter or website can be an inexpensive motivator and encourage them to participate in the next challenge. A small ceremony in one of your meeting rooms for the challenge participants is also a nice touch.

Participation Awards

Another important aspect of your wellness challenge is offering awards for participation. Participation awards come in two forms: an award for starting and actively participating, and an award for completing the challenge. While participation awards are generally small, they are used to reinforce the challenge and provide an incentive to continue the challenge even though he or she knows they probably will not win. Some examples of participation awards are as follows:
  • A free pedometer at the start of a challenge
  • A small reduction in health-care premiums or employer matching to an HSA
  • Free or reduced-cost fruit for participants in the break room throughout the challenge
  • Additional break time for members of an employee walking group
Whichever awards you choose for your challenge, they need to be established before the challenge ever starts and known to all potential participants. You must establish your fitness challenge as fair and your measurements objective.
The most important award your participants receive is better health and that needs to be emphasized on a regular basis. The other awards you provide should be presented simply as added incentive. This is why you should attempt to tie awards back to wellness whenever possible.
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