There are generally two sides to maintaining (or reaching) a healthy weight. On the one side is exercise, which increases how many calories you burn in a given day. On the other is nutrition and diet, which decrease and (when done right) optimize the calories you take in.
Although much of the imagery around wellness and weight loss focuses on exercise, nutrition is equally as important. Eating a Big Mac from McDonald’s is the caloric equivalent of running a half-marathon... a full marathon if you include the supersized soda and fries.
Perhaps more relevant for many of us is that exercise is generally more fun than watching your nutrition. Compare an hour of spin class or racking up a new one-rep max to not eating that ice cream bowl and carefully measuring portions of unseasoned chicken breast.
That’s why fad diets are popular, despite being proven again and again to be ineffective and often harmful. They make nutrition (or dieting) novel. At best, they’re an imperfect solution.
A better solution is to make the nutrition part of your wellness goals fun. Gamification is one of the best ways to do that, no matter what kind of eating plan you opt to go with.
Ever notice how good it feels to check off a box or cross out an item on your to-do list? That’s gamification in a nutshell. Essentially, gamifying your nutrition is a matter of keeping score and tracking progress, which is something your brain is hardwired to enjoy.
When you accomplish a goal, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin. That’s why crossing that item off feels so good. It’s also why some people get addicted to video games: It’s the same neurochemical cocktail responsible for drug addiction.
It’s powerful stuff. When harnessed to do you some good, it makes for an excellent ally to reach your goals.
Gamification in this context means keeping score in a way that’s meaningful to you. Whenever you score some points (however you structure them), you get a small hit of those feel-good hormones.
But how do you keep score for something as complex as your diet?
The simplest form of nutrition gamification harkens back to grade school: gold star stickers.
Buy yourself a bunch of them, and for every day you stick to your nutrition goals, put one on your wall calendar. Reward yourself with something nonfood-related for every 10 (or 30, or two, whatever works for you) consecutive “gold star days.”
This alone is enough for many people looking for a little extra push on their weight and fitness goals. But for those who need something more robust, here’s one approach that works for thousands of people worldwide:
WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers.
They use a simple program: having regular “weigh-ins” where your score is your body weight. WW celebrates success and provides support for any setbacks, but most importantly, participants spend the week knowing their score will be tallied. Established in 1963, the WW program was gamifying nutrition before the word was invented.
Appsmight be the most direct application of the addictive elements of gamification. They let you input your dietary information in real time and track it with some kind of scoring mechanism. In some cases, they just count your calories. In others, they map your intake to a point system with video game-style achievements. Some examples of popular nutrition and wellness apps include:
Immersive gamification is an option for people who either really need support or just really love games. NerdFitness.com is an example of this kind of deep-immersion game.
Signing up includes a “character creation” process that looks at your fitness goals, lifestyle, and body type to develop a set of “challenges” or “quests” for you to accomplish. Then, with coaching and information from the service, you set out on your fitness “adventure.”
These services even include achievements and leveling up, like the most popular computer and tabletop role-playing games.
You can choose to have the work done for you by downloading an app or signing up for an immersive service. Or you can build your own nutrition game in five steps:
- Choose your nutrition goal. Whether it’s simple calorie counting, cutting out certain foods, or increasing your intake of key nutrients, select how you’ll keep track of the changes to your diet.
- Select your nutrition metrics. Choose the numbers you’ll judge for your success or failure. Some people might choose calories taken in or grams of a specific nutrient. Others might be less granular, just measuring the number of days without cheating.
- Build infrastructure. Create the system that will measure your progress toward your goals. Apps do this automatically, but you can do it by hand with a journal, stickers on a calendar, or hash marks on your bathroom mirror. Just make it easy to access.
- Establish accountability. Choose how you’ll reward yourself for progress. Whatever motivates you is up to you, though you probably want to avoid food-based rewards, which can be counterproductive to your goals. You may end up overeating more than you’d like.
- Reap rewards. Work your program, and let psychology and neurochemistry do some of the hardest work for you.
Living a healthy lifestyle day in and day out is something we all have to work at. Some days it feels easy, while other days may be challenging. But the good news is that gamifying the process can be incredibly effective — and make the work part a lot more fun!
Jason Brick is a freelance writer and journalist who came to that career after over a decade in the health and wellness industry. When not writing, he cooks, practices martial arts, and spoils his wife and two fine sons. He lives in Oregon.