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Losing weight with Gamification and mHealth

My professional interest in gamification has gotten personal.

Gamification, the application of principles from games to make an activity more enjoyable, is a popular feature of mobile health applications (mHealth).

Professionally, the last three semesters I have applied gamification to the teaching of social media innovation. I also have an ongoing research project on gamification and mHealth.

Personally, I have benefited from the gamification to mHealth to develop, reinforce, and maintain healthier habits.

Lessons learned on gamification and mHealth

1. Measuring an activity changes it.

Recent research has shown that keeping a food journal helps people lose weight. Since joining Weight Watcher’s for Men, I keep a daily log of what I eat. By tracking what I eat, it reinforces making better decisions about what, how much, and when to eat.

  • I am now eating more fruits and vegetables than I ever have before,
  • I have a re-calibrated sense of reasonable serving sizes,  and
  • I am less prone to eating due to boredom or in response to stress.

2. Technology helps

The otherwise onerous task of keeping a food journal is greatly simplified through Weight Watcher’s online and mobile tools. Unlike a paper log that is easily misplaced or forgotten, the Weight Watcher’s application make it simple to enter foods and beverages. There are multiple technology in play:

  • Weight Watcher points: instead of tracking calories, Weight Watcher’s has a proprietary point system based on a food’s nutritional value,
  • Web and mobile applications to enter points, and
  • There’s even a smart phone scanner application that will find food information based off of bar codes.

Losing weight involves changing both diet and exercise habits.

I found a great gadget that helps: the fitbit, an electronic pedometer. I keep it in my pocket all day long and it keeps truck of how many steps I take and how many flights of stairs I climb. Without an automated data collection device, I would have never maintained the same vigilence in tracking daily activity.

3. Family and friends help even more

A big reason why I joined Weight Watcher’s is that mom, a retired nutritionist, was having success with it. I find the social support of someone to share pointers, successes, and setbacks helps sustain long-term change. It’s easier to change your habits when those around you support the new behaviors.

Likewise, one of the reasons I bought a fitbit is because I knew someone else who already had one. I now have a half dozen fitbit friends. Through an online fitbit leader board I can see how we’re all doing daily, weekly, and monthly. The friendly competition and shared celebration of milestones provides an extra incentive to carry it with me wherever I go.

4. It’s not just will power

There’s a popular myth that all it takes is strong enough willpower to change a bad behavior and adopt a good one.

Like many myths, it contains a sliver of truth. A strong desire to change is important. But, will power alone is not enough. Even the most inspired and determined artistan needs materials to work with.

Weight watchers provides information to make better eating decisions. In the grocery store, at a restaurant, or preparing a meal in the kitchen it is easier to make better decisions armed with information.

Deciding if I’m going to go for a walk or not, the fitbit helps me stay focused on making daily activity a part of my life.

5. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Successful gamification and mHealth takes more than just points, devices, or an easy-to-use mobile application. It’s going to take a complementary system of incentives, nudges, and rewards. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to lose weight or exercise more. I’ve achieved mild success before, but nothing this sustained or dramatic. (I lost 35 pounds in the last 8 months… and I’m not done yet!)

The combination of tools, knowledge, and social support is both challenging and rewarding. The drudgery of exercise is more rewarding when I see visible progress. Instead of being frustrated by changing what I eat, it is now an enjoyable challenge to remain within my allotted points each week.

And, really, that’s the great potential for gamification and mHealth, turning healthy living from something we should do into something we enjoy doing.

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