Despite the years I’ve spent trying to lose 20 or 50 pounds, my bad habits stymie me. I am held captive, it seems, by ice cream, my taste buds chained to what feels like relief from my chronic oral pain problem.
Like many others who spend weeks or months trying to lose weight, I usually fail to reach my goal and then give up entirely. No matter that I write about health care for a living or that I can recite the latest news on nutrition, health and well-being: I surrender and remain stuck. Knowing what to do — eat less, move more — is seldom motivation enough to do it.
The sense that I was a hostage to bad habits might explain why I was so intrigued when I heard about a workplace wellness game — A Step Ahead: Zombies — developed by Mike Tinney, chief executive of Fitness Interactive Experience (FIX). Wellness games, in which employees sign up for such challenges as counting their steps and changing their diets, seem to be popular and can be part of a larger push by businesses to promote healthful behavior. The jury is out, however, on whether these programs and incentives actually work.
Tinney had taken a leadership course from Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, and he figured that the strategies Voss used to keep a hostage-taker talking could be applied in games to keep an exerciser moving.
As he crafted his zombies game, Tinney brought Voss in as a strategic adviser, hoping to find new ways to keep players engaged, motivated and on the move to more-healthful lifestyles. Voss was with the FBI for 24 years, retiring as its lead international hostage negotiator. He is now based in Los Angeles and is chief executive of the Black Swan Group, which helps people solve business-negotiation problems.
Tinney, whose company is located in Atlanta, was curious about Voss’s approach to behavior change.
“He had to quickly assess and categorize personalities and decision-making types of hostage-takers, and then, in simple and effective ways, communicate in a way that would increase their engagement and not shut them off or turn them away,” Tinney said. “It was similar to us [in game development]. We have some people who are excited about a challenge and others who are reluctant adopters, who are doing it because they get a benefit [from their employer] or a discount, but it’s not something they’d do on their own.”
I wanted to know what, exactly, could be learned from a hostage negotiator, whose world I imagined to be fast-paced and violent, without apparent relevance to corporate wellness.
The zombie game offers a playful spin on America’s fascination with the undead. (Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has used zombie apocalypse themes in its programs on emergency preparedness.)
As in many corporate wellness programs, players join teams and report their daily progress in achieving fitness goals. But in Tinney’s game, reaching those targets has another purpose: to evade pursuing zombies. Teams that fall behind risk becoming zombies.
Neither hostage negotiators nor game developers, Voss said, can “push people into things, but [they can] help people discover what’s inside themselves to move in a specific direction. It is about sustainable negotiation.”
Voss said that game developers need to know “how people make decisions, how they’re comfortable, how they like to get information. Developers need to know how to encourage [players] in ways that promote a positive mind-set.”
For years, I’ve been an emotional eater. Anxious, lonely, tired? Bring on the ice cream and cookies, my emotions clamor, and never mind the calorie count or the sugar.
“Beating yourself up about your health — or even saying things like ‘I should do this because the opposite is bad’ — is punishing behavior that puts you in a negative frame of mind and makes it harder to make rational decisions,” Voss said. “As with hostage negotiation, the point of Fitness Interactive Experience is to put people in a positive frame of mind when it comes to their health by turning it into a game so they make good decisions.”
So Tinney’s game incorporates the tactic of continuous positive reinforcement — the idea is to push the hostage-taker to develop a sense of trust, a willingness to cooperate to achieve his own ends. In doing this he tapped into the notion of the zombie apocalypse. (The idea of a world in which the living dead take over seems to have grown with the popularity of the television show “The Walking Dead.”)
Keith Kantor, owner of Service Foods in Norcross, Ga., has tried the zombies games with his 100 employees, who prepare and deliver flash-frozen meals and other foods to people’s homes. A nutritionist, Kantor had long offered wellness programs: access to a dietitian, discounts on healthful food products, free gym memberships and more. About three-quarters of his staff participated.
“But when the gaming came in, that other 25 percent all got engaged,” he said. “They were more excited about doing exercises and running away from zombies than they were in hearing that over 40 percent of them would likely develop diabetes.”
Voss said that someone like me — with little time for myself — needs to replace bad habits with good ones “that build on what you enjoy doing and how it appeals to your identity.”
I began to see how my interior negotiations could take a turn for the better. The trick would be to replace the happiness that comes from eating chocolate with some similar benefit — such as clothes that fit — that can come from physical activity.
Mitesh Patel, on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, has studied making small changes as a way to improve health habits. Instead of aiming for targets that can be unrealistic — “I need to lose nearly 50 pounds,” for instance — Patel suggests making smaller changes that can become part of a daily routine.
He recommends a few basics, such as setting a goal. Without one, people won’t change.
“Small wins early on can support changes,” he said.
It’s helpful to involve a friend, because if you have agreed to take a walk with or to meet a buddy at the gym, you have an incentive to follow through. And don’t forget social media, he advises. Exchanging Facebook posts with others looking to get fit can offer the encouragement you need.
It’s so hard to change fitness habits, Voss said, because change involves loss. “When people have trouble changing, it’s because they’re focused on what they’re losing, and [they] need to substitute something that they’re going to gain. You can’t get rid of a bad habit or vision unless you add a positive habit or vision. One example is putting up pictures of fit people, which can become the vision of the gain you’re pursuing. You can ask yourself, ‘Have I given up on myself?’ Answering ‘no’ becomes a way to drive yourself forward and spur action.”
Do I really want to give up on myself? I’d like to enjoy the years ahead, and I know that physical activity is one way to ensure that I’ll feel better along the way. The other side of my internal negotiation has yet to find a way to dispute that.
Lynch Schuster is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.