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Motivational Boosts to Fitness Behavior Modification

by Sande Chen on 02/05/15 01:26:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topic of Motivation.]

 

As I mentioned previously in the article, Fitness Behavior Modification, January is the month for fitness goals, weight loss goals, and other behavior modification goals (e.g. smoking cessation).  Numerous smartphone tools, trackers, and devices such as FitBit exist to help people succeed.  Has technology helped boost motivation to change behaviors? 

In a 2014 study of approximately 1900 volunteers around the world, researchers at Imperial College London wrote that there was a "significant although modest" reduction in BMI of those dieters who used social media and smartphone apps compared to those who didn't use technology.  Another study at Arizona State University's School of Nutrition and Health Promotion noted that those who used smartphone calorie trackers were more likely to continue tracking food intake than those who used pencil and paper.

To me, the technological leap in the Arizona State University study seems to be more about convenience.  I have tried both calorie tracking methods -- smartphone and the more traditional pencil & paper -- and I can state that it is somewhat of a chore to accurately track calories.  I never bothered to weigh my food with a food scale and if I couldn't find the exact information I needed, I would put down whatever was approximate.  A smartphone app made it easier for me to track calories, but I confess that even with the app,  I stopped after a month or two.  This experience of mine isn't unique.  People often take to New Year's resolutions with eagerness, only to fall back into old habits by March. 

Still, a monitor or tracker would seem to point to intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation. The information gained from the data tracking compels the individual to get better numbers and do better.  Intrinsic motivation is about a person's internal desire to engage in the activity without the fear of a negative event or the promise of a reward. Intrinsic motivation arises from within an individual whereas extrinsic motivation is from an outside source.

While I do not know the apps specified in the Imperial College London study, the researchers reasoned that the community forums provided support, advice, and approval to the dieters who used them.  While peer approval would appear to be an extrinsic motivator, it has been seen in research that praise in certain situations can improve intrinsic motivation.  Excessive praise for minimal work certainly does erode intrinsic motivation but if the praise isn't evaluative like "Great job!" and more a subjective expression of appreciation than a reward, then praise can lead to a boost in intrinsic motivation.

Let's take a look at other fitness apps: Here's the carrot or stick approach.

  • Nexercise allows users to earn discounts and gift cards in a gamified environment of XP points, leveling and badges.  
  • FIT ACC punishes users who fail to work out regularly with a monetary fine. 

Competition can be considered an extrinsic motivator, even if it's just about bragging rights.:But what about competing against yourself?

  • Cardio Smackdown allows players to compete against friends.
  • Ghost Race allows players to compete against friends but also a player's best time in the form of a "ghost" self.

Many people consider cut scenes in video games to be a story reward. Run and get some story?

  •  Zombies, Run!  is a well-known exergame in which the runner player needs to avoid zombies
  • Superhero Workout helps defenders of the Earth get in shape for the alien invasion.

So what's better, intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?  The danger to extrinsic rewards, as many researchers have observed, is that it tends to diminish performance.  Enthusiasm turns to boredom.  Now it's just work rather than fun.  Extrinsic motivation is useful for mechanical tasks, which I'm not sure if exercise would be considered one.  Extrinsic motivation can get previously uninterested individuals to start the process of behavior modification, but I think for a real life change to happen, intrinsic motivators need to take over.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


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