Friday, 22 January 2016

MyFitnessPal and gaming your weight

This year one of my resolutions was to take better care of myself by eating better and doing more exercise. I decided to use MyFitnessPal after a long and scientifically rigorous investigation (some people at work were using it and said it was good) and I’ve been fascinated to see how it has used some simple (mostly gamification) psychological tricks to focus and encourage me.

Your FitnessPal is watching you

The basic principle is simple. You keep a list of the food you eat and the exercise you do and it gives you a running total of your calories compared to your daily maximum (defined by level of activity, age, etc). At the end of the day, if you’re under your limit, you’re given a cheery prediction - “if every day is like today in five weeks you’ll weigh blah!” It’s surprising how addictive that affirmation can become. I want to achieve that, and apparently I can. I just have to keep going.

And there is an opposite reaction in me - I don’t want to disappoint the thing. I’m not sure exactly what happens if you go over but I suspect it gets mad and melts your phone. I haven’t dared find out since it got angry with me for not eating enough to live (this was a mistake not a conscious choice! Don’t do it kids!).

Food as a game

Not only does the app give you a report at the end of the day, it presents a running total so you can watch your calories slowly creep towards your daily goal. With the electronic Eye of Sauron always watching (and remember this thing is on your phone so is likely in your pocket all the time) there is a strong motivator to make you seriously consider that piece of cake.

However, if you DO eat that piece of cake then help is at hand. I know a lot of people who diet and are in a constant state of guilt over what they are eating. Clearly this isn’t good for their mental health; a calorie counter gives a definite indication of whether that snack mattered or not. It allows you to build in space for cake, or recover from eating it in a practical way without pangs of guilt. Drink water instead of wine with your evening meal and it evens out, no problem.

The application reduces the food you are eating to a series of numbers. As a mathematician and a gamer I like numbers - they imply a system and systems can be manipulated. Calorie intake can be substituted as above or changed via portion control. Everyone knows about portion control, but watching the numbers change on a screen makes it live for me and encourages me to actually do it. Doing some exercise raises your max calorie intake for the day so I find myself going swimming to give myself an increased ceiling. I like swimming so it’s hardly onerous, but I doubt I’d bother going as often as I do if I didn’t have this little numbers game running in my pocket.

Now obviously there are also unhelpful ways to game this system. You can, for example, eat at Subway but list your foods as homemade equivalents, thus saving yourself at least a hundred calories a sandwich. Or you can go for an extreme (ie plain stupid) diet - my calorie intake is fine if I eat nothing but 12 Cadbury’s Creme Eggs a day. However, in the manner of an 80s kids cartoon, there is a moral - if you cheat your Pal, you’re only cheating yourself.

The proof of the pudding

There are strong motivators to Do The Right Thing however all this falls apart rather quickly if there aren’t any results. So far I can report that it seems to be working. I’m obeying my electronic taskmaster and seeing the results, which encourages me to continue to do so - and so it continues until the machines are completely in control…

The app itself

A quick note on MyFitnessPal. I’m using the web based version and the Android app. It’s hardly the only calorie counter out there but it’s working well for me. I like the cost (it’s free) and now I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks I find it very easy to use. It did suffer from a pretty horrible start though. Before the app seeds its internal listings using your regularly-selected foods adding anything is incredibly laborious - which means the worst few days of the experience are the first few days.

On top of this, the home screen is initially utterly useless - full of news I don’t care about and pseudo-tweets which gave me a heart attack until I reassured myself they weren’t being added to my Twitter account. Eventually I discovered the option to turn this nonsense off and now the home screen gives a load of nutritional information which is actually quite interesting.

So I’m pleased with my experiment with a calorie counter, and MyFitnessPal in particular. I had serious doubts on starting - I thought the book keeping would drive me insane - but actually so far I’m finding it nothing but a benefit.

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