Especially if it involves teamwork, sometimes good old fashioned competition can offer a healthy boost. Take the Ultimate Fitness Challenge, organized by the US Healthcare corporate fitness center in Blue Bell, Pa. By creating a contest to determine “The Most Fit Department,” the company was able to garner a 40 percent participation rate among 1,300 employees, and introduce the benefits of exercise to 100 new exercisers who now make fitness part of their weekly routines.

The contest involved six departments who competed by earning “miles” for fitness activities such as exercising on the treadmill, participating in aerobics classes or working out with weights. After four weeks of competition, the top 10 people from the top three teams competed in the “Ultimate Challenge,” a pentathlon that included a 2-mile run, 10-minute bike ride for distance, 10-minute row for distance, push-ups and sit-ups. In honor of the 1996 Summer Games, the contest featured an Olympic theme, and the top male and female overall received a trip to the Olympics in Atlanta.

While competitive incentive programs sometimes discourage participation among non-athletes, Brian Thorburn, health and fitness director, said the competitive approach worked for US Healthcare.

“Usually the goal is to get everyone involved, instead of making it so competitive that some people won’t participate. But this program combined [both] those aspects of exercise programming,” Thorburn says, adding lightheartedly, “When you give away a trip to Atlanta for the Olympics, people tend to get competitive.”

In addition to raising the level of team involvement in the company and increasing department pride, Thorburn says the contest also yielded a number of exercise converts. Follow-up studies showed that one-fifth of the more than 500 who participated never exercised before but now do so on a regular basis with “workout buddies” from their departments. That’s what we call friendly competition.