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  • Writer's pictureSandhya Gokal

Healthy Habits Showdown

Using Competition to kickstart healthy habits

Staff fighting girl versus boxing boy

A few years ago, an Australian radio program called 2dayFm ran a competition called Alphabucks (1). The premise was simple. You had 30 seconds to answer 10 questions, with each answer starting with the same letter. The prize was $10,000. For each accepted answer, you won $100, but the jackpot was only for those quick-witted individuals managing to get to 10 answers without panicking.

Everyday for 4 months, at 8am, I called the number to play, pressing redial up to 20 times per morning. I was desperate to get through, knowing that unlike the contestants who blanked on the 3rd question, I had the ability to answer all 10!

Of course, I didn't get through. And the reality is, even if I had, I probably would have blanked on the 1st question (Answering under pressure is definitely my downfall.)

What made me keep calling?

The idea of a competition and the chance of winning.

The perks of competition

Competition is amazing as a motivator. It has so many elements of fun from many different frameworks, it's off the charts!

It's fun while you're engaging in the activity, fun afterwards when you are reminiscing fondly of the experience, or sadly if you lost dismally. By inherently involving reward through challenge and a social component, competition also builds bonds. What fun would a competition be without the chance to defeat other players?! (2)

Competition pushes us to our limits. In order to win, often we have to extend the boundaries of what we are capable of. In this way, growth is inevitable, and our creative minds go work overtime to find new solutions to the problems presented to us.

As well, according to the Octalysis framework set out by Yukai Chou, competition promotes an environment of scarcity, because there can be only one winner. There's a sense of unpredictability, since you have have no idea what could be in store, and whether you even have a chance of winning.

A great example of this kind of competition is the lottery. People buy tickets and play every week, for the merest chance to win the big jackpot. It's exciting!

Adding competition to your health habits

When someone has high blood pressure, or diabetes, there are no tangible health effects. You cannot look at someone and say, oh, that person definitely has high blood pressure. You can assume they do by knowing that they have a high stress job, or personal issues at home. But there are no physical symptoms to prove you correct. It is not like smallpox, where the presence of blisters pretty guaranteed the likelihood of disease.

This is why it is so easy for people with lifestyle conditions to ignore them for so long. Having no tangible side effects decreases their urgency. This disconnection can compound pretty quickly and sometimes lead to life-threatening situations such as a heart attacks and long term ulceration.

Adding game elements such as competition to real life goals can not only connect you to your health, it can provide a fun medium to promote action towards your health. As well, it takes away some of the stress, anxiety and fear around your health, by giving you clear, actionable steps towards improvement.

A perfect example of competition spurring health is a 60 day fitness challenge which can yield unexpectedly positive results. By adding scarcity in the form of a time limit and coupling that with the empowerment of knowing you are taking charge of your own fitness, the difficulty of the challenge merits the reward.

Today we're going to talk about how to add competitive elements to your health habits.

elements of a good competition

There are some keys to a good competition. Let's run through them before looking at an example of how to integrate competition into your healthy habits.

A clear goal

Having clarity around what you want to achieve is crucial to successfully implementing a self-driven competition. If you don't have the social aspect of the competition to drive you, then you must be crystal clear on your goal.

Defining the parameters of the competition is important. Think about the lottery again. If you were told to buy a lottery ticket to win some amount of money, how many tickets do you think they would sell?

Not a lot.

Some amount of money is too vague, and more importantly, does not allow the competitor to IMAGINE the outcome and how winning would affect their future. Can you imagine what you would do with some amount of money? What does that even mean?

Alternatively, can you imagine what you would do with $1,000,000 dollars? I bet your brain started firing off possibilities as you read the number. Cha-Ching! Your mind popped on it's creativity hat and starting adjusting its mind map to allow for the possibility of a future where having $1,000,000 was a reality.

Clear Guidelines

I'm preparing for someone to throw a tomato at me yelling, "BORING!" Set yourself some rules. Rules are the boundaries within which you play. A competition without rules is like a lawless society, bound to descend into chaos and madness. Stop the madness. Set some rules.

Intense desire

Intense desire is the motivation behind why you enter a competition. I once entered a competition to win a fitness tracker. My current fitness tracker was on it's last wobbly legs and I needed a new one desperately. The opportunity presented itself in my time of need and I competed with gusto, because I had the intense desire to win. The outcome you set must be, for YOU, something you want.

Relative detachment

Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you'll land among the stars - norman vincent peale

Relative detachment is the ability to disassociate the result from your identity and emotion. This attitude makes it possible to lose a competition with good grace! That is, be a good sport. As well, being able to disentangle your emotions from the result you desire means a loss will not cause a massive influx of negative emotions (read: less overturned tables and holes punched in the walls). Similarly, a win will not lead to a manic increase in egocentric emotions.

Instead, mastering this skill will lead to contentment, faster identity shifts and boosts in confidence and self-esteem.

A great prize

Need I say more? *dances off singing All I do is win, win, win, no matter what!*

Case study

For the purposes of this case study, we are going to use the following player:

Ash recently got diagnosed with insulin resistance, the precursor to type 2 diabetes. His devastation levels upon hearing the prognosis were through the roof, and internally, his mind screamed

Outwardly, he remained calm, nodding as the doctor recommended that he increase his exercise, eat healthier and try to keep his blood glucose levels within range.

Ash decides to challenge himself to a competition.

The Goal:

To control his blood glucose levels (BGL) with diet and exercise to prevent being put on medication.

Bear with me here, I'm going to go into technicalities, just in case any of you lovely readers are in the same situation as our friend Ash.

Normal blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetes are classified as 4-7 mmol/L fasting, and 5-10 mmol/L 2 hours after eating. (3)

the healthy habits showdown:

Setting up the win state for Ash might involve some gold stars. Yay!

gold star

3 days of BGL within range for all meals

gold star
gold star

5 days of BGL within range for all meals

gold star
gold star
gold star

7 days of BGL in range for all meals

As I am writing this, I can feel my blood pumping with excitement. This is something that is both achievable and will get Ash to a much better health level!

  • To add an extra element of fun into the game, let's set up a spin wheel that Ash can spin to decide what reward he will get by achieving 1, 2 or 3 stars. He adds in rewards such as a new Nintendo switch game, a night out with the boys and gold class movie tickets.

spin wheel with 8 rainbow coloured wedges

  • Another method he could add into this is added motivation not to lose, by assigning monetary consequences to falling off the wagon. For example, by offering a friend $100 if he does not get to 1 star, he is adding extra incentive to make sure he does the minimum required for 1 star!

So far, we have the intense desire, a clear goal, and the win state. We've added a bit of unpredictability and excitement to up the ante and making winning both extrinsic and intrinsic.

When setting up a competition with yourself, there is another state that needs to be defined.

The lose state.

Setting parameters to deal with loss is crucial for self-competition, especially around health. Not accounting for this possibility leaves you open to experiencing depression, low self-esteem, stress and shame.

The best way to accept losing gracefully is allowing for reflection and readjustment for the next round of competition.

If Ash doesn't achieve 3 stars, what has changed for him? What has been done well? Did he learn any new recipes? Did he do something that gave him success most days, like going for a walk after each meal?

Reflecting on how much you grew through the competition and being kind to yourself gives you a much higher chance of continuing the habit after the competition ends. And, ultimately, that is the goal!

The last step for a successful self-competition is to have a visual tracker. Make or print a chart.

Ash sets up his competition, rearing to go! Fired up, he finds the competition helps him move his insulin resistance into controlled territory.

You Win! You reached the end!

So there you have it! By adding competitive elements into your healthy habit goals, you are much more likely to achieve a win. The added benefit of setting this up for yourself is flexibility in what your rewards are. You can invite friends to join you, make the rewards as small or as extravagant as you wish.

I'm fired up to hear about your competitions! Let me know how you go in the comments below. If you need help creating your healthy habits showdown, shoot me an email or message. Bonus points if you can incorporate all the competition elements mentioned in this post!


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