DownWithDenim.Org: Motivating Healthy Behavior

On April 8, Karten Design introduced, a system that addresses the childhood obesity epidemic in a new way.

The idea is simple: Offering kids free denim jeans to motivate them to adopt healthier behaviors, then providing them the resources and coaching to achieve their goals.

Today, childhood obesity is an epidemic fully recognized by the American public, with the help of activists like Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver. In Los Angeles County, one in five students in 5th, 7th and 9th grades is obese. Clearly, we were dealing with a big problem—one that stems from other large problems like income inequity, limited access to healthy food and places to exercise, a food industry driven by subsidies, and personal values that favor unhealthy choices.

When Karten Design looked at what we, as a single design consultancy, could do to effect change, we honed in on motivation. There is a prevalence of information regarding health and diet, but a dry list of “do’s” and “don’ts” has not been enough to motivate children to adopt smart eating choices. Lacking in previous attempts at helping children maintain a healthy weight was intrinsic motivation.

Our conversations with Marsha, a cognitive nutritionist, gave us a better picture of how motivation works for teens and tweens. “You have to flip the switch,” Marsha told us. Kids think about the here and now. The promise of losing five pounds in a month falls flat in competition with a greasy piece of pizza in arm’s reach. But if they hang in there long enough, they will start to see tangible benefits to healthy diet and exercise. They feel better; they look better; they feel better about themselves, and all of the sudden a switch flips in their head and they internalize the importance of their new habits.

As we developed our solution, we looked for ways to help kids “flip the switch” earlier in the process. We wanted to provide a tangible benefit to healthy diet and exercise early in the game—something they could touch and feel when faced with temptations. This is what inspired the core components of the system—fashion, free stuff and visualization.

When the truck arrives in your neighborhood, overweight participants can visualize what they would look like at their healthy body mass index (BMI) via an augmented reality mirror. This visual is an initial motivating factor to get kids to sign up for the program, and be excited to take the first step towards a healthy body.

Overweight children receive a free pair of jeans in the next size down. Kids with a healthy BMI receive a pair of same-size jeans. For those who struggle to make healthy decisions, the jeans become something to aspire to and a tangible measure of their progress. With the help of coaches, mobile apps and a social network, participants begin the process of integrating healthier habits into their lives. They log their food and exercise. They interact weekly with virtual coaches who offer tips, menus, local resources and encouragement. Eventually, overweight participants lose weight. The jeans become a concrete representation of progress as, each day, the zipper begins to slide smoothly upward, inch by inch.

At that point, we’ve effectively flipped the switch. The program teaches the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle by being cognizant of what you eat and how much they exercise. The jeans and the truck make it not a maxim, but an experience that develops engagement and intrinsic motivation, which we hope will develop into life-long behavior changes.

Karten Design is working to make our program a reality. Please visit to follow the program’s evolution!

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