Get Fit And "Helfie": Making Fitness Fun With Gamification

Behavioural insight teams from three countries come together to test their ideas for making fitness fun.
Helfies of Ms Gemma Enright (Australia) taking part in an ultra marathon.

Want to get fit? How about snapping selfies of yourself doing healthy activities (aka “helfies”), or giving yourself “dry day points” if you stay off alcohol for the day?

These are just some of the ways to score points and advance in Fit Feb, a month-long competition in February between behavioural insights units from the governments of Australia, the UK and Singapore.

Now in its second year, the friendly competition uses the gamification of fitness – applying game elements to exercise and eating well – to make getting fit more fun.

The brainchild of the Australia and UK teams, Fit Feb started as part of a project to improve workplace engagement, health and well-being. The Singapore team was invited after the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) had worked with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM)’s Behavioural Insights and Design Unit.

During Fit Feb, each team is assigned points for accomplishing healthy activities, such as hitting the gym or doing short office workouts with colleagues. Scores are tallied each week in an Excel form and sent to all participants so everyone gets to see where they stand.

It’s very paiseh [embarrassing] when you can see everybody’s scores. So from week two onwards, we started really exercising.

At the start of last year’s challenge, the Singapore team had planned to keep to their usual exercise routine, says Ms Wong Hefen, Senior Assistant Director at the MOM.

But at the end of the first week, they were trailing behind in last place.

“We were horrified,” says Ms Wong. “It’s very paiseh [embarrassing] when you can see everybody’s scores. So from week two onwards, we started really exercising… We organised a lot of group exercise activities and hung out more.”

Peer pressure

Get Fit And "Helfie"
Participants from the Singapore Ministry of Manpower mimicking taichi statues in the Botanic Gardens.

Fit Feb is unusual because it ditches the shout-y, “no pain, no gain” rhetoric of reality shows like The Biggest Loser for something subtler.

It uses behavioural insight principles to keep participants engaged and motivated. The entire challenge is designed like a game, complete with competition, incentives and scores shared openly to “nudge” people into forming habits that will stick.

For example, one way for non-drinkers to gain “dry day points” is to cut out soft drinks. Ms Wong, who participated in Fit Feb again this year, recalls: “I started drinking a lot more water and the habit stuck, even one year after.”

Working out together also meant ample opportunities to bond. An added motivator was that exercising with teammates would double the points a participant collected in a day.

Get Fit And "Helfie"
Dr Rory Gallagher (Australia) doing “watermelon squats” in the park.

Participants can score points by doing exercises such as push-ups and stretches at their office cubicles, but Ms Wong recalls that some had felt shy going at it alone. “So they would plan to do it with their colleagues. For example, they’d say, ‘I plan to do [the exercise] at 3pm, does anyone want to join me?’”

Doing these activities together also increased the visibility of exercise in the office, helping to normalise it, says Dr Rory Gallagher from the UK’s BIT. He helped to kick-start Fit Feb in 2014 while he was based in New South Wales, Australia, as an advisor to its Behavioural Insights Unit.

And to give weaker teams a fighting chance, the organisers issued weekly “Wildcard Wednesday” challenges worth extra bonus points.

“So if for some reason, in the first couple of weeks you weren’t doing so well, you still have an incentive to participate,” says Mr Xian Zhi Soon of the UK’s BIT, which hosted the challenge this year.

One of the most effective wildcards pitted selected individuals against each other in exercise “face offs”. These participants ended up scoring record-high points, which demonstrated “the motivating power of personalised battles”, writes Dr Gallagher in a reflection on the MOM intranet.

Teams were also challenged to take “helfies” of themselves exercising and fulfilling the wildcard prompts, such as posing with their national flag at gyms, parks, national landmarks or in water.

To keep things fun, an independent judge would pick the best “helfie” each week. The only criterion: “The more ridiculous, the better”, according to the 2015 organising team.

Getting stronger

Get Fit And "Helfie"
Ms Allison Wong (Australia) after a blood donation.

This year, Fit Feb simplified its scoring system and grew to include more participants. The Singapore team roped in officers from the Public Service Division and Alexandra Health Group, who also explore behavioural insights in their work.

As the organisers plan to rotate the host country each year, next year might well be Singapore’s turn.

While the format will largely remain the same, one idea Ms Wong has is to explore creating more interaction between teams: “For example, if you send an encouraging message to somebody across teams, or do the same exercise, you get more points.”

Get fit and "Hellfie"
Mr Lee Wei Chung and his colleagues from Alexandra Health Group having a feast of fruits.

Incidentally, this is the second year that the Singapore team has won the Fit Feb challenge. Victory, though, as Ms Wong admits, came at the price of having to resist the urge to indulge in festive snacks over the Chinese New Year period, and “over-exercising”.

“We were quite burnt out from the exercise… We realised how competitive we are. I guess everyone else did too!”

The Fit Feb challenge uses the EAST framework of behavioural insights to make the fitness challenge Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.

    May 1, 2015
    Jeanne Tai
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