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Several years ago when I was working as a faculty member of an elementary school our school nurse challenged all the faculty members to join a health team. The idea was to create a team, give ourselves a name and enter into an unknown health challenge for a period of six to eight weeks. It was meant to be a fun event as well as encouraging us to improve our fitness and eating habits over a period of time. It was to begin at a very simple level and then become more difficult in steps as each additional step was cumulative. So we began with simply drinking more water each day and each week brought an additional challenge.

It’s a new year and you know you’re ready to get into better physical shape. Why don’t you create your own Health Challenge and move toward a healthier eating and exercise regime? It can be fun if you decide to offer the challenge to co-workers, neighbors or friends. It’s a non-threatening way to add healthy habits into your days and you can make it as big or as small as you want. There is virtually no preparation except to decide to do it and ask others to come along for the fun. Here are the steps our challenge took, but you can design yours to suit your own particular needs.

Week One:  Participants read about the challenge, formed their teams and waited for the first formal challenge to be delivered. These came via e-mail and results were tracked on a bulletin board in the staff room. Team names were posted and then moved along the pathway of each week’s challenge. Teams did drop out along the way and out of six teams only two finished the entire challenge. Still, gains were made and all was done in a spirit of fun.

Week Two:  The first challenge was this:  Each participant will drink a total of two litres of water each day. We all promptly began to carry water bottles around with us as we went through our daily routines. It was an easy challenge, but took dedication to make sure we actually remembered to drink that much water daily. Success for all.

Week Three:  The second challenge arrived:  Each team member had to shop in the produce section of a grocery store and select a food item never before eaten. Some of us found eggplant or a variety of squash. Some tried an exotic fruit never before eaten such as mango or guava. Some tried Chinese vegetables or artichokes. This, too was a simple challenge to do and we had to remember to keep drinking the water.

Week Four:  In addition to drinking the water daily we now had to rise to the challenge of eating two full cups of fruits or veggies daily. Potatoes, especially French fries, definitely did not count. This sounds easy, but if you think back over your meals for the past few days, it is easy to eat cold cereal for breakfast, sandwiches or burgers for lunch and have an evening meal of pizza or pasta and before you know it an entire day has gone by with no fruits or veggies eaten at all. So this challenge is easy, but takes discipline to accomplish.

Week Five:  Challenge number four was to begin tracking daily steps. Pedometers were made available and we started setting goals for daily walks. The ideal number for this challenge is 10,000 steps per day. I found that I could walk on my treadmill at a comfortable pace and walk 100 steps per minute. I also found that my normal walking around the school and at home averaged 5,000- 6,000. So I could get to 10,000 steps if I walked on my treadmill for 35-40 minutes daily. Needless to say this challenge caused the majority of the team’s failures. It isn’t hard, but takes some monitoring and time. Your challenge might begin with only 6,000 steps per day and increase over time.

Week Six:  In this last week of the challenge we had the option of decreasing one of the following in our diets:  sugar, caffeine, soda drinks, salty snacks.  So now we were drinking plenty of water, eating two cups of fruits and veggies daily and also walking a certain number of steps. We were asked to substitute something healthier for our daily snacks or cut them out altogether.

Our Health Challenge was fun and took very little in the way of planning. Part of the fun was wondering what next week’s challenge would be and the element of competition, even though there was no prize, made the experience enjoyable. Some of us actually carried on drinking more water and trying healthier foods. Some are still walking more each day. Additional challenged could be limiting daily calories, engaging in exercises such as yoga or stretching, trying a 5K walk or run, or any other healthy challenge right for you and your group. We all know that New Year’s resolutions don’t often last into February, but this little activity may be just the right thing to help you get off on the right foot health-wise in 2011.