Employees take part in a boot camp-style fitness class on the lawn of 1 Discovery Place in Silver Spring. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

During a doctor’s appointment last year, Sal Alvarez got some discouraging news. His cholesterol had ticked up, his blood pressure was higher, and his physician wanted to put him on more medicine to control those conditions.

Those results made Alvarez newly determined to get his health on a better track. And so he turned to a wellness program offered by his employer, Discovery Communications.

Each year, the Silver Spring-based company holds a voluntary, 16-week competition in which participants divide into teams and vie to walk the most steps. They use an online platform called Global Corporate Challenge to log their progress and compare it to their rivals’ numbers. If competitors do other workouts, such as swimming or biking, the system will calculate how many steps those activities are worth.

Alvarez, a service desk analyst, said he quickly found the format to be highly motivating.

“There’s sort of like a peer pressure and a competitive edge to it,” Alvarez said.

Sal Alvarez, a service desk analyst at Discovery Communications, began attending a boot camp-style fitness class, at left, as part of the company’s 16-week fitness competition. Even though the competition ended five months ago, he continues going to the classes. To date, he’s lost 42 pounds. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Discovery is one of an increasing number of companies that are turning to competitions and socially-based activities as a way to compel their workers to get fit, a trend that has been facilitated by a burst of online platforms that make it easy to track one’s performance and see how it stacks up against a co-worker’s.

This approach, often called the “gamification” of wellness, has become a central component of many corporate wellness strategies and marks yet another attempt to curb employers’ rising health care costs.

Discovery’s most recent challenge drew 369 teams comprised of nearly 2,600 workers, according to Adria Alpert Romm, the company’s senior executive vice president of human resources.

Throughout the program, the cable television programming giant tried to keep the competitive spirit running high by providing employees with teasing, pre-written e-cards that they could send one other.

“16 weeks too much of a commitment? What are you, a Kardashian?” one such e-mail chided.

The company said participants lost an average of eight pounds each.

Now, about five months after the challenge has ended, Alvarez continues to attend the boot camp-style fitness classes at Discovery that he started as part of the competition.

He’s so committed to the classes, he says, “I’ve had to push my wife’s birthday [celebration] to another day or later in the evening, because it’s that important.”

Last Wednesday, he and his colleagues braved the cold evening air and gusty wind for an hour of running, weight lifting, abdominal exercises and stretching. Alvarez said the teacher’s military-esque toughness doesn’t leave much room for slacking off.

“It isn’t something that you dread. I look forward to it because the guy keeps you motivated,” Alvarez said.

His legs were sore by Thursday afternoon—most likely, Alvarez said, from 50 repetitions of squat thrusts—but that won’t stop him from going back to class this week.

To date, Alvarez has lost 42 pounds and says his cholesterol has dropped significantly. His employer’s wellness competition, he said, was the “perfect launching pad” for his transformation.

‘Accountability element’

Capital One, the McLean-based financial giant, is another firm that has incorporated a competition into a broader wellness strategy.

When the company first decided to try this format in 2011, its wellness offerings were already relatively robust. It allowed employees to receive medical care at on-site health clinics and doled out subsidies for healthy meals in corporate cafeterias.

“We just wanted something that we thought was a little more leading-edge,” said Rob Paczkowski, the company’s director of benefits.

For the eight-week challenge, employees assemble into teams of five to 11 people. Those who choose to participate are given a pedometer to log their steps and access to an online platform provided by Providence, R.I.-based company ShapeUp.

ShapeUp’s tool introduces a Facebook-like social element to the challenge. Workers can virtually high-five a team member who has done great work, or they can issue direct challenges to rival teams for mini contests within the larger competition. For example, one team might challenge another team to walk around the office campus during lunch time.

Teams can compete on three different criteria: Number of steps taken, number of exercise minutes logged or percentage of weight lost. The winning team in each category gets a $50 gift card for each of its members.

This set-up “creates that very social element, that accountability element,” Paczkowski said.

One-third of the company’s global staff participated in last year’s challenge and logged 7.8 million minutes of exercise. Staffers shed a combined 14,000 pounds, and the average participant lost 7 pounds.

New twist to wellness

In addition to the cost benefits, employers have been motivated to invest in employee wellness because experts say a healthy workforce has lower absenteeism and higher levels of productivity.

In their pursuit of improved employee health, companies have for years been using wellness programs to incentivize good habits. In many cases, they offer cash or other rewards to workers who get a physical, undergo a biometric screening or engage in other preventive measures.

But the gamification approach is a relatively new twist that is growing increasingly common.

A survey by the National Business Group on Health and Towers Watson found that 45 percent of companies used competitions as part of their approach to wellness in 2012, up from 33 percent the previous year. An additional 15 percent of firms plan to add competitions in 2013. The survey also found that 19 percent of companies incorporate social media tools into their wellness initiatives, an increase from 12 percent in 2011. Another 17 percent said they are slated to add social media tools this year.

The gamification approach is effective in two key ways, according to workplaces that have adopted such programs and the makers of the technology platforms that support them.

Gamification plays to an employee’s desire to be on top. This type of mind-set, employers notice, is in part what drives a salesperson to rack up deals or a consultant to fight for new clients. They figure it could be channeled to help employees meet health goals.

Also, because these competitions are typically team-based, they inherently provide a built-in support system that encourages employees to stick with the program.

“Corporations are networks of people,” said Chris Boyce, the chief executive of Virgin HealthMiles, a company that provides socially-focused corporate wellness programs. “And we find that networks of people actually move and change together.”

Business opportunities

The increased corporate interest in competition-based and socially-oriented wellness programs has resulted in more opportunities for firms who build and manage the online platforms that facilitate them.

Companies such as RallyOn, Keas, Hubbub Health, ShapeUp and Global Corporate Challenge have models that are rooted in these ideas. Virgin Group, Richard Branson’s venture capital organization, has moved into this area with its Virgin HealthMiles company. Aetna offers its members free access to games and apps from Mindbloom, and is in certain cases working with employers to help promote these tools to their employees.

At least one local start-up, District-based Cor, has entered the market. The firm, known until November as FitFeud, originally planned to market its Web-based, competition-focused platform directly to consumers. But the company’s chief executive, Nicholas Tolson, said they quickly realized that wasn’t the right approach.

Because many people receive health insurance through their employers and because they spend so much time at their offices, they felt it made sense to sell to companies, not individuals.

Plus, they determined that consumers might not want to shell out money to partake in a fitness challenge, but employers often have set budgets for wellness initiatives.

“We would go after the places that sort of have a pot of money set aside and see if we can get a piece of that,” Tolson said.

They also decided that competitions alone weren’t enough to make the platform fully engaging, so they added more communication tools and more education resources to make the product more comprehensive.

Currently, Tolson said his firm has five clients that represent 40,000 employees, and plans to try to grow its user base and its offerings further.

“We’ve all joined a gym and bought a workout DVD and it’s gathered dust,” Tolson said. With the social strategy, “we’ve identified the motivation piece.”