A blog by runners. For runners.

Accomplish your health goals through gamification

Use the gamer strategy to accomplish health goalsWe all have something that holds us back on our path to optimal health and performance. It might be a persistent injury, a crazy busy lifestyle, a general lack of motivation, or any combination of things – but the point is, each one of us has something we wish we could tackle so we can get that much healthier and happier.

In my case, I used to be a chain smoker. And a runner.

I knew it was awful for me, my health, and my running performance. It felt awful, but I continued to do it. For almost seven years. I tried to quit, lots of times – I read all the books. I took pills. I did hypnosis! Nothing worked.

Nothing except realizing there was no magic tool. That nothing would help me except me – that I had to assume responsibility over this problem and vanquish it, not passively let it happen to me as though it was something I could do nothing about.

I’m proud to say it’s a year and a half later and I’ve not only conquered my smoking habit, but I’ve accomplished more in my running than I ever thought possible. It definitely wasn’t easy, and still, often, isn’t, but it has probably been the most rewarding challenge I’ve ever undertaken in my life.

How did I do it? I turned it into a game.

Why? Well, I was influenced by the research of Jane McGonigal, who designs games that solve real, difficult problems to stimulate what she calls “post-traumatic growth” – that is, resilience in the face of a strenuous challenge and subsequent personal betterment and happiness. Her ideas on (and studies showing) the potential of gaming of all sorts to better our real lives are fascinating, and her current project, SuperBetter, distills those ideas into highly-personal strategies everyone can use to tackle their challenges.

How does Gamification work? 

The ideas are so simple they might sound juvenile.

The basic premise is you are a superhero. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to vanquish the challenges that stand in your way in order to become the very best version of yourself that you can be. And to do that, you have a whole host of tactics available to you:

  • Find allies: Allies are people you can trust unconditionally to always be on your side. Their mission is to support you, either generally or in one specific area of your life. They don’t need to know you’ve designated them as your allies, but you should know what their role will be and that you can always turn to them for that particular thing. In my journey to quit smoking, I had two allies: a manager at work who understood the challenge, and would let me leave early to nap whenever I felt overwhelmed and exhausted; and my boyfriend, who had also quit recently and was willing to spend evenings with me in bars, putting up with my grumpiness, drinking wine, and helping me learn to socialize without going outside for a cigarette.
  • Set quests: Quests are small, manageable challenges that will give you a disproportionately large rush of accomplishment once achieved. The real lesson here is to start with something very, very small. If your goal is to start running in the morning, set yourself the challenge of running for just 15 or 20 minutes – something you know you can easily accomplish but that will be an accomplishment nonetheless. For me, my quests consisted of having one two-minute, non-work-related conversation with a coworker every day. As an introvert, smoking was my way into casual conversations with others, and I had to retrain myself to learn to do this in other contexts instead.
  • Give yourself future boosts: A future boost is simply something you schedule that you are looking forward to – a treat of sorts. When you have something to anticipate with pleasure, the challenges blocking your way to getting there become easier to overcome. In my case, it was a surfing vacation. My habit had always interfered with surfing – logistically and philosophically, and I yearned for a beach day free of the drag of cigarettes. (And it was incredible.)
  • Battle the bad guys: We will always have setbacks on our path to reaching our goals. Setbacks are inevitable. But what you can do is “plan to fail” – set out clear plans for what you will do when you come up against difficulties and roadblocks. In the first few weeks of quitting, I prepared myself mentally to either turn down or leave a social event if it was causing me to have unbearable cravings. It was a bit embarrassing, and sometimes a bit of a bummer, but it was so worth it once I was able to return to a full-fledged social life without a thought of cigarettes.
  • Collect power-ups. Power-ups are little things you can do to boost your happiness, energy, and motivation. These can be highly personal – calling a friend, cuddling your cat, listening to your favorite song – or quite generic, like going for a walk or drinking a big glass of water. I would go for a small run whenever I felt the cravings coming on. It not only boosted my energy, but it also made me feel so good I completely forgot about any urge to smoke – and I was shocked at how quickly I was able to gain (back) huge amounts of lung power. The day-to-day progress made me even more motivated to stick with my quitting, and the half-marathon I finished that fall felt like the ultimate prize – and the ultimate conquest.

By using these strategies, you will be cultivating a sense of personal agency – the confidence in knowing you are in charge of your life. There is nothing more rewarding than that, and nothing more useful in helping you to overcome the most difficult of health and fitness challenges.

But you don’t have to be going through a strenuous challenge to apply these tactics to your life. Use them also to add positive habits into your day-to-day, like running in the mornings or cross-training more frequently. However you choose to wield them, these strategies offer a great way to look at your challenges in a more positive, productive, and fun light.

Written by Varia Makagonova.