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Stepathlon: Taking Steps towards Better Workplace Mental Health

A recent study evaluates the effects of the 100 days of 10,000 steps workplace challenge and its impact on psychological well-being and mental health.

One in every five individuals will experience some form of a significant mental health crisis in their lifetime.  Statistics indicate that the costs incurred to treat mental illnesses will be at US$6 trillion by the year 2030. The financial impact of mental illness is now higher than that of cardiovascular conditions, cancer, diabetes, or chronic respiratory disease. The chances of early mortality rate as well as morbidity are significantly increased in individuals with mental health issues. Previous research has linked physical activity with a positive outcome in non-communicable physical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as in regulating weight and blood pressure. Past studies in mental health highlight how increased physical activity is positively correlated with a reduction of depressive symptoms.

How Can Stepathlon Improve Mental Health?

Previous animal research indicates that levels of noradrenaline as well as serotonin increase during exercise, which is similar to the impact of anti-depressant medication. In fact, exercise may be an important tool to prevent and treat mental illness. Stepathlon is a company that promotes workplace exercise through programs designed to challenge participants to increase their exercise to 10,000 steps a day.

The uniqueness of this study lies in the investigation of positive mental health outcomes for participants in a 100 day, 10,000 steps challenge at the workplace. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified that workplace interventions are a valuable tool to promote mental health. The 10,000 step challenge program developed for this study equates to 1.5-2 hours of walking, which is well above the recommended strategy on physical health and activity by the WHO. Despite clear physical improvements seen in the incorporation of these 10,000 step challenges, no research has been conducted on its impact on stress, anxiety, depression, and mental well-being.

This study was conducted on workplace populations participating in the Stepathlon corporate challenge in India and Australia. It was published in the BMC Psychiatry Journal in 2018. The research, approved by the Victoria University Human Research Ethics Committee, invited participants to be party to a research investigating the impact of a 100 day 10,000 steps challenge on their daily mental health.

The study included 1,458 male participants and 505 female participants between 16-74 years old. The participants included persons from 21 countries, representing a global population. The majority (1,610) were from India, and Australia (227). The study uses physical data recorded by participants on a password-protected website, using a pedometer or other fitness monitoring devices. Participants used a 21 item self-report consisting of three sub-scales- depression, anxiety, and stress to record symptoms of these conditions.

Taking Steps to Better Mental Health

The study demonstrates that psychological well-being and mental health improvement does occur in people who were active in the 10,000 step programs. The study showed that engagement in a workplace program improved stress by 8.9%, depression by 7.6%, and anxiety by 5%. The average number of steps completed did not impact the benefit to mental health. This means that improvements in mental health occurred through the act of participating in the program itself, more than the physical act of exercise. This could be due to increased social connections from the program, or because a “snowball effect”, wherein increases in exercise inspire improvements in diet and other wellness factors. The factors are clearly interrelated in a complex way and more research will be needed to understand the cause and effect relationship between workplace exercise programs and mental health.

An important finding is that the number of steps completed did not in itself result in significant differences in mental health and well-being. A more complex set of psycho-social variables including the participation itself in such work-place programs clearly does elevate mental health. The research demonstrated an impact on employee satisfaction, a reduction of absenteeism, and better productivity, which translates into better cost savings for a firm.

Written by Sonia Leslie Fernandez, Medical News Writer

Reference: Hallam, K. T., Bilsborough, S., & de Courten, M. (2018). “Happy feet”: evaluating the benefits of a 100-day 10,000 step challenge on mental health and wellbeing. BMC Psychiatry18(1), 19.



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