As societies around the world become more affluent, health problems arising from malnutrition and hunger are being joined by a new problem – rising obesity rates. In South Africa, a recent World Health Organization survey found that 41% of women and 21% of men are obese. As obesity rates rise, so do obesity-related diseases and health care costs. Solutions can be hard to find: There are also more skilled office workers than ever before, whose sedentary jobs offer little opportunity for physical activity throughout the workweek.
In September 2013, the Western Cape Government (WCG) created the “Walk4Health” initiative to promote a culture of health and wellness in the Western Cape.
The initiative was developed through a partnership between the WCG, ideas42, the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, the Heart and Stroke Foundation for South Africa, ICAS\HealthInSite e|Care, and the University of Cape Town (UCT). ideas42 and UCT applied behavioral insights to design the Walk4Health pilot, a friendly competition between several departments of the WCG offices. The goal was to make it both more salient and more enjoyable for people to be active at work by promoting physical activity and introducing a competitive aspect to daily activities. Participants wore a pedometer device that tracked their daily steps. A public leaderboard was announced and tracked weekly, enabling participants to compare their steps to their coworkers’ progress and motivating them to stay on track and climb higher in the rankings. Recognizing the power of social norms on small lifestyle choices in a group setting, we incorporated incentives for participation, timely feedback via the personal pedometers, and gamification to sustain attention. Each team also had Wellness Ambassadors to their respective government departments who served as models for other employees to adopt healthy habits and active daily routines.
We measured the impact of the six-week pilot on weight loss and physical fitness by taking participants’ biometric assessments before and after the pilot period. The pilot effectively helped participants lose weight, and led to other improvements in standard markers of health such as BMI, cholesterol level, and blood pressure. While the sample for this pilot was small, and contained no true control group, the results are suggestive of positive effects. The success of the six-week pilot program led the Department of the Premier (DOTP) within the WCG to instigate a second Walk4Health program that ran over the entire year.
South Africa’s Walk4Health pilot offered preliminary evidence that the application of behavioral science can be a powerful remedy to everyday health challenges. In a busy, modern workplace where employees have little time or cognitive bandwidth to think about their health, the impact of small tweaks that nudge them to engage in healthy behaviors without requiring a lot of attention is real and measurable. We believe evidence-based workplace wellness programs should be one of many strategies for fighting rising rates of obesity and resulting diseases around the world.