Weight-loss, gamification and common sense: a delicate balance

Reading this article on the Guardian website over lunch, and related tweets, I felt moved to respond myself.

The author of this article is right to scoff at the marketing around Weightwatchers’ traditional seasonal membership drive. After all, the messages are designed to appeal to the kind of people who make generalised new year’s resolutions – “MUST LOSE WEIGHT!” – but aren’t bright/motivated/organised enough to figure out how to do it.

Gamification, a neologism that has risen to prominence in the past two years, describes the act of taking an activity that is not a game and turning it into a game to increase audience engagement.

Proponents argue that gamification can be used to positively influence human behaviour by incentivising constructive activities that humans otherwise can’t really be bothered with.

It’s a bit like offering a child a biscuit if she cleans her bedroom, or awarding a New Year’s honour to a Conservative if he gives some money to the government.

Gamification is a concept at the heart of the Weight Watchers’ new campaign, driven this week by the launch of the website PlayWeightwatchers.co.uk – although here, the idea is to find a participant and remove their money and biscuits.

“Weight Watchers is a game we play to lose weight,” states the first line of the site’s copy in a crisp attempt to move the gruelling work of dieting away from the imagery of self-flagellating, fasting monks to the rotund bounce of Super Mario.

Dig deeper on the site to uncover the rules of the Weight Watchers game and details are disappointingly thin on the ground. “Playing” appears to be little more than an obfuscated version of calorie counting.

So the rather frivolous marketing message is annoying, yes.

But at the risk of defending weightwatchers, there is something effective about the points/goals/scoring system they operate which appeals to those motivated by targets and personal challenge, if not fully “gamers”.

Personal disclaimer/experience which allows me to comment on this in more than just a mediasnarky way: I lost 4.5 stone in 12 months a few years ago. I did this via a variety of methods (eating better & moving more being the main and most effective contributory factors – ’twas ever thus!) but I did sign up to Weightwatchers online and used the system to log (food diary), count (via their points system, which isn’t the current ProPoints, but whatever came before) and chart (via weight tracking graph) my progress. It was useful for that.

I didn’t attend a single meeting (can’t think of anything worse) and I ignored all the shuddersomely ignorant messageboards (sample question: “Which has more points? A BigMac or a Quarterpounder with Cheese?”)

The discipline of keeping track of food in and energy out and weight up/down was absolutely key for me, and has been cited by all sorts of people and organisations as a common factor in helping weight loss and healthy lifestyle be a life-change not just a crash-diet. Even the most intelligent among us can benefit from seeing a direct relationship between fuel consumed, fuel burnt and load carried. Because it is that simple.

Part of this was setting small, achievable goals – weightwatchers recommend 7lb increments, and at the time awarded you badges for hitting these targets. I took a different approach, because I’m not motivated by badges (apart from that Blue Peter one I got for painting a stegasaurus in 1983), and instead made a giant spreadsheet containing lots of weight equivalents which I could visualise better than numbers*. Because I’m a geek.

For example, 1st 7lb is the average weight of a female badger. Why on earth would you carry a badger around all the time? What a ridiculous thing to do. You’d feel far better if you put that bloody badger down and let it go snuffling off into the hedgerows or whatever (etc).

Other people may be more motivated by hitting round numbers, or dropping a BMI unit or whatever. YMMV.

Nevertheless, tracking was key for me. And WW – however full of mouth-breathers eating ready meals and fast food it may appear – was helpful in doing that. Other apps and schemes and software is available – including paper and pen, though you would have to do some jiggery-pokery to convert calories etc into something consistent to take into account that calories from saturated fat or carbs are different from those derived from protein.

Weightwatchers online database does that, for a lot of common foods (banana, 1 slice of wholemeal bread, glass of orange juice) as well as branded things (1 slice dominos pepperoni pizza, 1 muller light strawberry flavour, waitrose macaroni cheese ready meal). But on the whole I found it easier to set up and save a bunch of meals on there myself by inputting the recipes from fresh ingredients, because I cook from fresh most of the time and don’t eat ready meals e.g. “Meg’s Veg Soup = 1 onion, 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tin tomatoes, 2 carrots, 1 bunch spinach, 1 pt stock, 1 slice bread, 10g lurpak light = 2 servings @ 2pts/serving” (in that example, the points came from the bread, butter and olive oil, the other things being “free”)

Since I knew that I was supposed to be aiming for a certain number of points a day, doing this sort of tracking allowed me to “budget” points throughout the day – so many for lunch, so many for a snack, and so on. If I’d already used up more points than expected on breakfast and lunch, then mid afternoon I could have an apple (free) instead of a biscuit (2pts). Sounds obvious, but if you lack discipline and willpower, then structures help, even ones that should be obvious.

And yes, “earning” points through physical activity is part of it, too. Cardio, swimming, running (I did couch to 5k) and even walking an extra tube stop or two earn you points to deposit in the bank, which you can offset against the fuel you consume. Walking an hour a day meant I could continue to share a bottle of wine with my husband as a friday night winding-down ritual. When you set activity against reward like that, it’s easy to put your trainers on.

But while it’s easy to say “walk around the block and you can have another biscuit” the key is probably to think of it the other way round: “Had a biscuit too many? Get off your arse and go for a walk”

* Here’s the spreadsheet. These values were collected from a variety of sources. As you can see, there are some values I haven’t been able to find direct equivalents for. Suggestions welcome!

[table id=5 /]

One thought on “Weight-loss, gamification and common sense: a delicate balance

  1. This actually makes me want to to give a sensible weight loss plan a go. Thank you. Normally even the thought of a diet makes me crave things I shouldn’t have, and now I’ve had two babies (maybe I shouldn’t have had those) a simple strategy of activity versus reward, familiar through toddler sticker charts and graspable by a brain fugged by 4 years of broken sleep, actually sounds like a plausible way forward. Once I’m sleeping again…

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