The Game is Afoot!

The past few weeks I have been engrossed in books with similar theme as A Zookeeper’s Guide to Fitness. I finished Level Up Your Life by Steve Kamb last week, and I’ve started on a new fitness/diet book called The Game On! Diet by Krista Vernoff and Az Ferguson. Vernoff is the executive producer (or is it Executive Producer, I’m asking for a friend) for Grey’s Anatomy, so she has a strong writing background, but I’m not digging her approach with the book. It was a little difficult to adjust to her style, although I understand her process. The book is about really having fun with your fitness, and taking things up a notch by not just turning our fitness into a game, but making it a team-oriented, competitive game as well.

This is an incredibly interesting concept to me, and it reminds me how I became so motivated in my first couple months starting my fitness journey with the Vision Quest’s Biggest Loser challenge. We were on teams led by a personal trainer. We worked out together. Many of us hung out and supported each other outside the gym. Some of us became really good friends. It was a friendly and supportive competition but I loved the camaraderie established even between different teams. This atmosphere is created in the book Game On and I can see it working really well for a large majority of people. The premise worked great for me, and started me on my own journey. I also won the competition by losing nearly 42 (or was it 47, I can’t remember) pounds in 3 months.

Getting past the writing voice aside, I have only one small issue with Game On. This book focuses on a point system. That’s absolutely fantastic, actually. The point system works in a way to earn points for establishing healthy habits, not necessarily for losing weight. I love that aspect as well. The game encourages fun, harmless trash talking. It takes a certain finesse to effectively trash talk an opponent while still maintaining a supportive aura. I’m not sure I would do well in this area. The game works great if you are super competitive. This is me to a T. This is also why I think I did so well with my Biggest Loser challenge. I somehow started out on top and I refused to relinquish my top spot each weigh-in throughout the competition. I obviously don’t have a problem with this either.

So get to the point, Pattie, what’s your issue? My issue is you can lose points. Sigh. Negative punishment.

Let me explain also that I absolutely understand where Vernoff is coming from in her explanation. She actually did a phenomenal job explaining it in the book. There is a whole chapter on Integrity with your points. When you play the game, you earn points for completing certain tasks or working on habits.  You can get points for your meals, points for exercise, drinking water, getting a full night’s sleep, and practicing a new healthy habit and eliminating an unhealthy habit. A perfect day awards you 100 points.

However, you can also lose points. The most common cause for people to lose points is from the “Snacking Penalty” which is for snacking between meals, or eating a non-sanctioned food (basically anything unhealthy). This is actually a genius method to create a healthy habit of paying attention to what we eat, but I just can’t get past the use of negative punishment to establish the habit.

Listening to some of the examples were really frustrating and heart-breaking, too. One person had to give themselves a snacking penalty for eating a carrot. Because he ate it between meals. He did it so automatically, so mindlessly, he didn’t even realize he had done it until after the carrot was eaten. Another person admitted they had to be constantly present to keep from saying the word “Fuck” (it was their bad habit they were trying to eliminate).

This is what Vernoff is trying to get us to establish with the snacking penalty. She wants us to be mindful of what we are putting in our bodies, even when we are on automatic pilot. She advocates penalty points for eating something you thought was healthy (“sanctioned”) but was after the fact, you discover it was made with unsanctioned food. Her point is valid. We need to be responsible for the food we put in our mouths.

Her points about being mindful about our eating habits are spot on, and I agree wholeheartedly with her in that regard. However, I cannot bring myself to agree negative punishment is the best way to tackle the habit. To be fair, for those playing the game, I honestly don’t see another way to effectively bring such a focus to our mindfulness. So I have come to the conclusion I just can’t play the game. Because she encourages teammates to hold each other accountable, and never ignore a slip-up or setback.

Of course, I don’t ignore setbacks either, I give them a Least Reinforcing Scenario (LRS). I pause, acknowledge the setback, determine if and what I can learn from the setback, and then carry on in a positive manner. I don’t reward the setback, but I definitely don’t punish it either.

So how does one go about successfully and effectively training themselves to be more mindful about their eating habits using only positive reinforcement? Aha! This looks like a job for ZooFit! 

Go back to Steve Kamb’s book Level Up Your Life for just a moment and remember how he encourages us to turn our fitness into a real life adventure video game, where we earn points for doing healthy activities, going on fitness and mental and nutrition quests, and awarding ourselves with great rewards for accomplishing our goals. I have started adhering to my own version of his idea, calling my quests “Safaris” and looking for ways to catch my Big Five (btw, I am earning bucco points for this post, I’m already at 1000 words).

Eating Green is one of my Big Five, and sticking to my meal plan will earn me 500 points each day. Sounds like a lot, but I have only awarded myself those 500 points twice in the three weeks I’ve been playing this Safari. Because sticking to my meal plan exactly as I have laid it out is HARD! It’s really really difficult.

I had to be honest with myself one day when I was about to award myself with Meal Plan points, only to remember when I was at the supermarket, there were blueberry crumb cake samples out, and I had about three. But they were only samples! That shouldn’t count against your meal plan, right? Blueberry crumb cake was not on my meal plan. Not even three sample bites. So, yes, it counts. But not against me.

Remember the hook with video games. You have never lost the game, you just haven’t won the game…yet. So, I don’t lose points, I just haven’t earned them…today. Tomorrow I can try again and maybe if I’m at the grocery store and I see samples of crumb cake, I’ll remember the 500 points I can earn if I just stay clear of those tempting little bites.

But what if I don’t stay clear of the tempting little bites. What if I again cave to a little something not on my meal plan? Well, you have several options at this point. ZooFit’s philosophy is pretty simple- what would a zookeeper do in a similar situation when training their animals? Would they punish their animal for not understanding the behavior plan? Would they berate the animal for taking too long to get the gist? No, they would take a step back, adjust their plan, make appropriate changes, and work at a level that is motivating and reinforcing for the animal.

One idea for dealing with repeated slip-ups is to actually up the ante of reinforcement. Perhaps, even at a whopping 500 points, that really just isn’t enough to resist temptation. But what about 600 points? What about 750 points? Or, go all the way, baby, double those suckers. If you repeatedly cannot stay true to your meal plan for 500 points, how willing would you be to stick to it for 1000?  What do you get when you reach 10,000 points? For me, I get to go out for a nice fancy dinner with my husband at a restaurant of my choice. So, 1000 points would get me closer to my goal much quicker, and that would definitely be an incentive to pay attention to my meal plan and stay on track.

Another method could be to break the behavior down a little further and map out a more precise training plan. If your end goal is to stay on track with your meal plan, you can create a step by step process to train yourself using shaping methods and operant conditioning to work towards the healthy habit.  

But what about dealing with one of the big issues at hand? How can we train ourselves to focus on being mindful? One method may be to come up with a healthy habit to train yourself that encourages you to think before you eat. My suggestion is to reinforce the habit of logging your food before you eat it. For every meal (breakfast, 2 snacks, lunch, and dinner), you award yourself points for logging your food before you even eat it. Then, you up the ante for special circumstances. If this habit helps keep you from straying from your meal plan, or refrains you from eating between meals, or stops you from mindlessly succumbing to temptation, then you are allowed bonus points. So if you get 100 points for logging a meal before you eat it, and you go into work and see a box of donuts, but the habit of logging your food before you eat it actually stops you from caving and eating one of those donuts, you get a bonus of another 250 points.

Notice in all these scenarios, you can only win. You can only gain points. There is no losing of points. You haven’t lost the game, you just haven’t won…yet. That is exactly how trainers feel about an animal that is struggling to complete a new behavior. The animal simply hasn’t gotten it…yet. But we will. We just need to stay positive.

I love the idea of turning fitness into a game. My competitiveness loves the idea behind the Game On Diet, but it does have its drawbacks. It somewhat reminds me of the program I learned about last year called “Carrots and Sticks”, where it relied heavily on negative reinforcement- if you meet your goal, you don’t lose anything, but if you don’t meet your goal, you lose whatever you put up at stake. Game On is way more positive and motivating, I can attest to that having experienced a very similar concept. But putting any kind of focus on the negative tends to draw attention away from the positive progress we make in our efforts, and I am all about training positive.

If you are interested in playing a fitness challenge game with me, you can be sure I’ll work us hard. I’ll challenge you, and I’ll push you. I may tease you. I will laugh with you (with you, never at you). I’ll work through setbacks with you. I’ll even struggle along with you. We can make it a competition, or a team based game. But no matter what the outcome, anyone who plays ZooFit with me- everyone will always win! Game on, indeed.

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