Creating Healthy Habits

In this special to Orange Juice, graphic designer Erin Williams shares her experience with a new digital health technology in her quest for fitness.

For five years, bicycling was my primary mode of transportation. I rarely felt the need to hit the gym, because I logged 16 miles a day with my daily commute. But while cycling was great for my legs and my heart, the last year of this journey grew increasingly stressful as tensions with L.A. drivers escalated, landing me in the hospital with a head injury last summer. When I finally gave in and bought a car, my family and coworkers were relieved not to have to worry, but I found new things that I need to worry about. In my first month of driving, I gained five pounds. Five! In one month! I realized that I could no longer count on my heart rate and blood pressure being excellent every time I went to the doctor, could no longer eat a plate of pasta just because I went for a long ride.

I had been getting all of my exercise without ever having to think about it; getting on my bike in the morning was simply habitual.

At the office, I’ve been learning about how new technologies are changing the way people approach healthcare—changing the conversation from disease management to preventative care and healthy lifestyles, and getting patients more engaged and invested in their own outcomes.

I decided to test some of the Connected Health tools I was learning about at the office. I tried Fitocracy as a part of my research, but an aversion to sharing my every movement, measurement, and calorie count with the world prevented me from using the more social aspects of the site. I don’t think I’ve signed in for at least two months.

Then a recent NPR segment on Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit, gave me a clue what I needed. Duhigg says that habits are actually composed of three parts that form a loop: the cue, the behavior, and the reward. The cue signals to us that we will get the reward, which causes us to engage in the behavior, and then the reward convinces us that we should keep engaging in this behavior.

This theory explains why it’s so hard for most people to develop good exercise habits—instead of an immediate reward, we are left with fatigue and sore muscles. We tell ourselves “no pain no gain,” and “it’ll be worth it in the long run,” but the lack of instantaneous incentive deters the formation of exercise as a habit. Sure, some people claim that they experience an exercise high, that they genuinely feel better after a good run, but can we just admit that this is not normal for someone who is trying to form a new habit? This happens for people who are already in the habit of exercising. So the rest of us need to fake that positive feedback loop until the natural benefits like weight loss and increased energy kick in.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered a new company called GymPact that was launched this January specifically for that purpose. People who are having a little trouble sticking to their gym schedules sign up, commit to how many days they want to work out each week (I’ve started out at just 2 days a week), and set the monetary stakes they’ll pay if they don’t go.

Herein lies the instant incentive to maintain one’s gym schedule – if you miss a workout, you have to pay a certain amount of money (no less than $5). That’s right, I get fined $5 for each workout I miss, and that money gets redistributed to the people who did do their workouts. And the people at GymPact will know if I miss a workout, because I use an iPhone app to check in at my gym every time I go, and they time how long I stay (under half an hour doesn’t count). Every Sunday night, GymPact tallies up the number of workouts other members and I have done, compares them to our goals, and charges us accordingly. I have only been a member for a week, but I can see that this simple commitment, with no calorie tracking, no competition, and no weigh-ins, is causing me to make hitting the gym more of a priority. Stick with me to see if I can stick with it!

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