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Staying healthy with Gamification

Yesterday I achieved two independent but still linked health goals. First of all, yesterday was my 730th day of walking 10,000 or more steps every single day without a break.

That’s two full years of minimum 10k steps per day or more, regardless of weather, wear, pains, aches and other commitments.

The second was reaching Garmin Connect Level 6, which requires 620 Garmin points. The benefit of this is nil, zilch – nothing. Except it’s a motivating factor, as each challenge completed brings you one to eight Garmin points closer to the next level. What do you gain from reaching a new level? Again – nil, zilch – nothing! Except each level has a different colour. But there are no perks, discounts or anything other than the personal satisfaction of reaching yet another previously deemed impossible level.

What is gamification?

The term gamification was initially coined by Nick Pelling back in 2002. According to Gartner, gamification is “the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals”.

From a health perspective, it means tricking you into doing healthy activities such as walking, running, swimming or bicycling that you otherwise wouldn’t do in exchange for worthless points, badges and competitions. While it might not work for everyone, it certainly works for me.

Why does it work?

When I first moved to the Middle East some 23 years ago, the very first thing my new Director asked me when I reported for work at his office was, “How do you eat an elephant?”. A bit perplexed, while desperately trying to recall if there even is such a thing as elephant steak, he answered his own question for me: “One bite at a time”. It was meant to serve as a reminder always to approach massive undertakings one step at a time and not be overwhelmed by the overall complexity. The reminder was valid – after all, we set out to open 7 new branch offices in 3 months while taking the lead in the construction of Dubai Internet City.

The question and term of eating a massive elephant one bite at a time stayed with me, though, and remains relevant even for personal fitness goals.

If I were to wake up one morning and decide that day would be the first of 730 days to walk 10,000 steps or more, it would seem impossible. Equally so, setting out to earn 620 Garmin points (without cheating by doing a lot of private competitions) would be daunting, to say the least.

The secret of gamification is that it lures you in, literally, one step at a time. Before you know it, you’re so far into a new record that you know breaking your streak means starting over from scratch will be unfeasible.

The How

While I’ve done it on my Garmin watch, the concept is the same across most major wearable brands, such as for instance Suunto, Fitbit and Polar. Some badges are automatically earned while performing a specific task, while others must be signed up for.

In Garmin, I visit the Challenges tab on the Garmin Connect app on my iPhone at the end of each month to sign up for next month’s challenges and then put the ones I’m least likely to want to perform in my calendar so I won’t forget. The site garminbadges.com offers a good overview. Other vendors have similar systems.

The Gameplan

For every 30 days of 10,000 steps or more, you earn a 4-point badge. For every 60 days of reaching the same daily step goal, you earn an 8-point badge. And every month, you can sign up for various badges for running, swimming, walking and hiking, all driving you towards the greater goal of going from level 1 to level 2 and so on…

The Cost

I’ve had a handful of late evenings when I’ve suddenly realised I lacked 6-7000 steps with very little time left before midnight. On one occasion, I ran laps around my summer house in pitch-black darkness and pouring rain before finally clocking in the 10,000th step just minutes before midnight. At a friend’s 50th birthday party, I snuck outside for a half-hour powerwalk to keep the streak going. Other than that, I’ve just been lucky not to get seriously ill.

The Weird Ones

Thanks to the Pandemic, there haven’t been too many formal dinner events, but there have been a few. On the occasions where Black Tie or formal wear has prevented me from wearing the oversized Fenix 6 and later Fenix 7X watches, I’ve resolved to wear it around my ankle, hoping nobody would notice.

The Benefit

Thanks to Garmin’s challenges, I’ve run at least two 10k+ runs that I would otherwise not have bothered with, a bunch of 5k laps, and been far more consistent with my swimming laps than I would otherwise have been. On top of that, the health benefit of at least 10k steps each and every day is nice.

Most of all, though, it’s kept me in decent hiking shape for the past few years. Even during periods of time too busy to hit the gym regularly, I’ve had the comfort of knowing that, at the very least, I’ve walked 10,000 steps or more.

The Statistics

On average, I’ve walked just over 15,000 steps each day for the past two years. The least amount is 10,032, and the maximum was just over 50k.

The weekly average step count has been just under 105k, and it’s been around 10 million steps for the past two years in total.

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Gunnar Florus Mountaineer