Game Over: The Problem with the Gamification of Food + Fitness

It’s nothing new that food and fitness have been gamified to help people reach their health goals. For those who are competitive, the game aspect can make getting healthy fun and tangible, celebrating each accomplishment along the way. Lose 10 pounds and treat yourself to a new workout outfit? Booyah. Workout 6 days a week and reward yourself with a massage? Saweet. Beat your friends in reaching your step goal every day this week? Holla!

Accomplishments are always worth celebrating, but I have a problem with basing your wellness goals entirely off of rewards. If you don’t hit your goal, whether it’s going a whole 30 days without grains, dairy, legumes, or anything processed, or even just making it to the gym in the morning once a week, it can create negative pressure on yourself. 

In theory, we’re all light hearted and don’t take ourselves seriously. Drunkenly eat pizza? Eh, it’s just one meal. Decide to sleep in instead of going to the gym on one day? It’s only one day. However, those who set goals around rewards are often more competitive. Competitive people don’t usually participate unless they want to win. Research shows that gamification can help short-term goals, but without intrinsic motivation, it might not be sustainable over longer periods of time.

If someone is doing the Whole30 and eats one slice of pizza or a cupcake while out with friends, the rules say that you have to start the Whole30 over again. It’s a punishment to yourself for fudging up (pun intended) and forcing you to work harder for even longer. 

“I can’t eat any pizza or sweets. Those are the RULES!” 

Says who?

A few Facebook videos have shown that so much of the “health news” is literally fake news. What The Health uses scare tactics to claim that all meat is going to kill you, instead of pointing out the differences between processed “meat” like hot dogs and grass-fed, organic beef. You can’t take anything for face value, and you sure as hell shouldn’t live solely by the rules of someone who has created an entire industry of off the paleo diet. 

I’ve claimed before that most people struggle with disordered eating of some sort, and gamified goals lead to disordered eating. If you feel obligated to track every single bite of food that entires your mouth, even if it’s just a potato chip or one grape, that’s disordered eating. 

No, it’s not anorexic or bulimic, but food shouldn’t be down to the science or a game of tracking. We all know damn well that not all potato chips are created equal: you could have one of those massive ones that makes you open as wide as you do for the dentist, or it could be half of one that got broken in the bag. Do you really want to count all 10 of your full-sized chips, 20 of your half-sized chips, and 40 of your crumbs?

LOL. You have way better things to do with your time. I know it. 

It can easily get competitive to track your weight, body fat, food, or exercise, especially with friends, but certain things weren’t meant to be gamified. Food is meant to be enjoyed, and you shouldn’t have to deprive yourself of a yummy donut in exchange for a digital trophy that says, “You hit your macros for the day!”

Physical activity isn’t always the most accurate when gamified. If you have any sort of fitness tracker, you’ll know that running reports the highest calorie burn. Yes, running may burn more calories than weightlifting, HIIT, or even indoor cycling, but it can convince you that running is better. It doesn’t take the importance of strength training into account, and even during your yoga flow, your tracker might buzz to tell you to move. If you rely solely on fitness trackers, the gamification can skew your perception of fitness.

Personally, I can get competitive with my step goal. Some days, I feel so obligated to reach those 10K steps no matter what! And don’t get me started with tracking my sleep. However, what would happen if we took off our watch for the day? All of your steps, movement, and sleep still happened, even if a tracker didn’t capture them. You can be healthy without a digital, gamified report.

There are much more efficient, enjoyable, and sustainable ways to reach your health and fitness goals. Want to know how? Email or message me to setup a consultation. In addition to being a fitness trainer, I’m also a behavior change specialist and love empowering others to take ownership of their health!

Rooting for you always,

++ Mary K

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