A new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) has shown that a team-based workplace mHealth challenge using pedometers and online tools can get people moving more and help them lose weight.

Sedentary lifestyles, particularly in the United States, are a big contributor to a variety of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. There’s a lot of enthusiasm around using mobile technology to help get people moving more, highlighted in a recent scientific statement from the American Heart Association. And the data is starting to catch up with that enthusiasm. The mActive study recently showed improvements in step counts with an intervention using adaptive, personalized text messaging paired with a connected pedometer.

This study looked at Stepathlon, a workplace mHealth program that gives employees pedometers, gets them together in teams, and sets up a 100-day competition to increase activity and step counts. Participants came from nearly 500 employers in 64 countries, the majority of whom were from low and middle income countries. Using a website or a mobile app, participants could track the leaderboard, access personalized tools for self monitoring, and get health & fitness tips.

To actually track their steps, participants had to manually enter daily step counts via the website or app. They received motivational messaging, health tips, and reminders to track via email. They also completed baseline surveys and were invited to do a completion survey, which about half of participants actually did.

In this study, reporting data of three challenges over three years, researchers found an increase of 3,519 steps per day over the 100 day challenge. Based on the survey data, they also reported that exercise days increased by one per week and weight went down by 1.45 kg (about 3 lbs)

Workplace mHealth programs are a great opportunity to engage people where they are, often with the support of an employer motivated to improve the health of their workforce. There isn’t a lot of data on the effectiveness of many commercially available programs; in that regard, this study highlights the potential that these interventions can have. Also worth noting is the relatively low cost, estimated at $60/employee.

It’s important to note that this is all self-report data, which creates potential for significant bias (e.g. only people who are improving report data). It’s also short-term, so we don’t really know whether these improvements last after the challenge ends. And several features of the intervention could be improved, like using pedometers that automatically upload data or validated physical activity surveys.

That said, it’s encouraging that they saw improvements in physical activity with a relatively simple program. What exactly the secret sauce here is though is a bit of a mystery. There was a lot of participant messaging, which is important to the success of a mobile health intervention that aims to drive behavior change. And while improvements could be made to the intervention, prior studies have shown us that relatively simple mobile health interventions can have significant health benefits.

Hopefully, this observational study will be followed by further research using more rigorous study designs that can show more conclusive support for benefit in end-points we really care about like prevention of disease, weight loss, or quality of life.