For a small group of Microsoft employees, the long walks around lunchtime each day were something to look forward to. They’d get some fresh air, explore the coolest parts of the company’s vast Redmond campus and chat about their jobs and their lives.

It was also great to get away from their desks and feel energized when they returned. But winning first place in Microsoft’s “Move It! Challenge” for losing the highest percentage of weight as a team?

That part was a surprise perk for the Holey Walkamolies, one team among many joining the recent fitness challenge that inspires thousands of employees each year to get out and get moving.

Ossie Roycroft from team, Holey Walkamolies (Photo Courtesy of Ossie Roycroft)

Ossie Roycroft from team, Holey Walkamolies (Photo Courtesy of Ossie Roycroft)

“I found it to be incredibly motivating. My weight went down while doing this, and I was super pleased,” says Ossie Roycroft, manager of the PhD Intern Program for Technology and Research. “The fact that Microsoft promotes this, allows us to focus on this and take a little bit of time out of our day for this, is absolutely fantastic.”

The annual eight-week event helps turn exercise into a spirited way for employees to get to know their colleagues outside the office and have a blast while doing something active, whether it’s walking, biking, rock-climbing, yoga or any other kind of workout.

“It’s a fun way for employees to compete with each other, where they can really work on increasing the amount of physical activity they get during the workday or week to improve their overall health,” says Microsoft Wellness Benefits Manager Julie Krause. “Really, the goal is to help employees have a fun and easy way to move more – however they want to do it.”

It was the challenge’s third year, but the first time it’s been a global event, making it possible for people from different sides of the world to join teams, working together and cheering each other on. All told, more than 10,000 people in the U.S. participated, as did more than 6,000 more from other countries.

Microsoft employees participate in Special Olympics Unified Relay (Photo courtesy of Rob Wolf)

Microsoft employees participate in Special Olympics Unified Relay (Photo by of Rob Wolf)

Together, they all exercised for a total of more than 9 million minutes and took more than 2.4 billion steps, and $20,000 was donated to Special Olympics as part of the challenge.

Teams logged their activities on the Move It! website, tracking daily activity or adding the information from their fitness device, checking their standings against other teams and offering others words of encouragement or virtual high-fives.

Some joined this year’s challenge to jump-start a fitness habit, while others were already exercising regularly and saw it as a cool opportunity to do more. Tom Perttala, a software design engineer in Finland, said he jumped at the idea because he was already training for a triathlon.

Team Security Server Solutions (Photo Courtesy of Tom Pertalla)

Three members of the Security Server Solutions Salo team (Photo courtesy of Tom Perttala)

He and fellow Security Server Solutions Salo team members Petri Mäenpää, Aigi Alapuranen, Meri Löfman, Katja Huuskonen, Mika Laakkonen and Katri Honkonen nabbed third place for “most minutes exercised.”

At first, the team just did their usual activities, but “maybe it was week three when I realized we were quite high in the rankings, so I started to cheer people on to at least mark all their activities – and if possible, to do something more,” Perttala says. “I usually come to work by bicycle, and I started to take some longer detours.”

He says the Microsoft campus in Salo, Finland, has “great facilities to do all kinds of exercise,” with a fully equipped gym and a variety of classes. Löfman and Alapuranen were enthusiastic about a Body Pump class, Perttala did a lot of running, biking and swimming, and other team members had other favorites.

Sometimes they’d work out together and sometimes they’d do their own thing, but they kept track of their efforts as a team, as well as how they were doing against other teams.

Perttala says he “absolutely loves” working for a company that promotes fitness this way.

“These kind of challenges really keep the spirit up. I’m sure there were some people who started to move more,” he says, “and that’s great.”

Holey Walkamolies team captain Debbie DeLano says the team approach was a big motivator for her and other team members, including Roycroft, Cami Marshall, Susan Dawson, Todd Jackson, Kim Hargraves, Kathryn Warren and Terri Moini.

“If you do it on your own, you don’t have anyone to be accountable to,” DeLano says. “It always helps motivate us to say ‘We’re all going to do this. Drop what you’re doing! We’re all busy, but let’s just do this.’ And it’s a lot more fun.”

But what pushed DeLano even more was the competitive aspect. And not just with other teams, but with one member of her own team — her daughter, Marshall. Both women were counting their steps each day and would continuously try to outdo each other in a friendly rivalry.

In addition to winning the weight-loss category, their team took third place for “most steps taken.”

DeLano sometimes left her car at a park-and-ride a few miles from her office just to get in more steps. She usually eclipsed her pre-challenge goal of 10,000 steps per day, and a few times, she hit 27,000. The annual challenge raises the bar she sets for herself for the rest of the year.

“You know what you’re capable of, and you don’t ever want to be under that level,” she explains.

Dawson was on DeLano’s challenge team last year and says she’d been looking forward to doing it again.

“It’s really fun,” she says. “I love that it is a competitive type thing. That’s really motivating — especially for people who are working at Microsoft.”

Roycroft says she lost about 10 pounds during the Challenge despite joining the team late, and has dropped a total of 40 pounds since the beginning of the year.

“Overall, I loved it,” she says. “I expected it to be more work than it was. It was super motivating, and I cannot wait for next year.”