During the two-week period from January 1st through January 14th, state leaders will compete in the Capitol Steps Challenge, designed to emphasize the correlation between increased activity levels and good health, according to a recent press release. The Capitol Steps Challenge is the first phase in a year-long initiative by Virgin HealthMiles — a developer of employee wellness programs — to raise awareness regarding childhood obesity in America.

Virgin HealthMiles partnered with Governor Rick Perry (Texas), who invited governors and their senior executive agency leaders across the U.S. to participate in the Challenge. Fourteen states, including Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin, have joined the Challenge to put a spotlight on this important national health issue.

Obesity is poised to be our country’s next major health crisis. Research has shown a dramatic increase in the number of obese people in the U.S., particularly children, over the past decade. In 2000, the U.S. Surgeon General estimated that obesity cost the country $117 billion in both direct and indirect costs; today, that estimate is closer to $123 billion, the release states. Additionally, the Surgeon General’s data shows obesity is responsible for 300,000 deaths each year. And obesity-related conditions, such as heart disease, hypertension and type-2 diabetes, put further burden on the country’s already-strained healthcare system.

To raise awareness of these troubling trends, participating governors and their teams track their daily activity for two weeks. At the end of the Challenge, Virgin HealthMiles will declare the state team with the highest average steps per person as the Most Active Governor’s Team in the nation and will make a $50,000 donation to that state’s childhood obesity program. The winner of the Capitol Steps Challenge will be announced in late February at a ceremony hosted in tandem with the National Governor’s Association meeting in Washington, DC. Sir Richard Branson will attend the ceremony and personally present the $50,000 prize to the winning state.

The second phase of Virgin HealthMiles’ obesity awareness initiative, the State Leadership Challenge, will kick off in February. Teams of 250 individuals from U.S. state government offices will begin a year-long program to increase their physical activity. Based on activity levels, states can earn donations of up to $125,000 toward their childhood obesity programs. Further details will be available in February.

For more information about the Capitol Steps Challenge and to track the progress of each state’s team, visitwww.virginhealthmiles.com/capitolstepschallenge.