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McDonald's looks to 'Step-it' up on fitness with activity trackers in Happy Meals

Who said the Golden Arches don’t give a hoot about fitness? McDonald’s locations in North America have begun serving a bit of physical encouragement with every Happy Meal: a bright, colorful, pedometer-packing step tracker.

The House of Ronald is doling out the plastic “Step-it” wristbands as part of a widespread promotional campaign to “get kids active.” The wristbands are relatively simple, as far as fitness trackers go — they’re made of transparent plastic, sport an adjustable wristband, and feature a single button on front that performs the dual functions of toggling the tracker’s power and resetting the step count. Each Step-it unit packs LEDs that blink in time with the wearer’s steps: a slow walk triggers the occasional blink, while a jog or sprint sends the lights into a flashing frenzy.

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“Physical activity is important to everyone of all ages. We very much support children’s well-being,” said Michelle McIlmoyle, McDonald’s Canada senior marketing manager, in a press release. “Step-it is in line with McDonald’s general philosophy for Happy Meal toys, which is to make toys that encourage either physical or imagination-based play.”

McDonald’s said that over the next four weeks, it’ll debut a TV and YouTube ad blitz featuring the bands. Every Happy Meal sold in the U.S. and Canada will offer one of six color options: pink, yellow, blue, green, orange, and red.

Fitness bands may not sound like a natural fit with the gastronomic monstrosities that are Big Macs and McFlurrys, but the House of Ronald has been doing its darndest to turn its image around. In 2005, it launched a series of national TV spots that promoted exercise as part of a balanced life, and in 2012 kicked off a national public school tour focused on “[teaching] kids about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise.” A year later, McDonald’s pledged to stop marketing a few of its less nutritional options to children and spend $5 million to increase the number of fruit, vegetable, and low-calorie entrees on its menus. And this year, it’s an official sponsor (and the official restaurant) of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

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But the burger chain’s health efforts — and the those of the fast-food industry, for that matter — haven’t been immune to criticism. A 2004 study led by researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston found that children who regularly consume fast food are far likelier to pack on extra pounds than those who don’t. And in 2010, a yearlong analysis conducted by researchers from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity determined that, among the U.S.’s 12 largest fast-food chains, advertising aimed at children between the ages of 2 to 18 actually increased. 

The Step-it promotion will inevitably be criticized by some — obtaining one in the first place necessitates ordering a Happy Meal, after all. But it might alternatively be perceived as a step (pardon the pun) in the right direction for the chain.