The Power of Turning Weight Loss Into a Game

March 01, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

Weight management has become a massive global industry. The proliferation of diet trends, support groups, coaching methods, and targeted workout routines speaks to the need for diverse strategies. Recent research suggests that, even though weight loss is not a game, treating it like one might improve outcomes.

In their article “Gamified Challenges in Online Weight-Loss Communities,” published in Information Systems Research in 2022, Professor Behnaz Bojd of the UCI Paul Merage School of Business and her fellow researchers, Professor Xiaolong Song of Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, Professor Yong Tan of the Michael G. Foster School of Business, University of Washington, and Professor Xiangbin Yan of the University of Science and Technology Beijing, explore the potential for gamification to positively influence people who are working toward personal health goals.

“The adoption of game elements related to fitness was something we were interested in studying,” Bojd says. “Specifically, we wanted to know if it actually helped incentivize people to engage more and become more consistent with their weight loss or other health-related goals.”


Social Cues

To collect data, Bojd and her team used an online platform. “Their website had many different features like social, forums, and following other users—much like Facebook,” Bojd says. “People could comment on each other’s progress, take pictures of their food, and encourage each other on their diets.”

The researchers tracked individuals over several months, providing time-based or panel-level data. Bojd says they were lucky because they already had four months of prior data on participants when the website introduced gamification features. They followed the same people for the next four months to compare the before-and-after results.


Game On

In the researchers’ study, the control group didn’t sign up for the competition, while the treatment group did. This allowed the team to measure the causal effects of the competition. “Would people be more engaged if their weight loss goals were gamified?” Bojd asks. “In the specific platform we studied, leaderboards were used to track results for people engaged in the competition. This is not necessarily a new thing. In sports, they always use leaderboards to track who’s winning and who’s losing.”

While collecting data, the researchers wondered if gamification alone would induce a sense of competition, or if an added financial incentive would be necessary to encourage participants to work toward a top-five ranking.


Lacking Incentives

Bojd initially was skeptical about participants not having any financial incentive. “I wondered if, without that financial incentive, maybe what motivated people to compete was their concern about their reputation or the embarrassment of performing poorly. That’s what we see when people are competing with friends or coworkers quite often. In our study, the participants were total strangers, and they weren’t even using their own names.”

For all of these reasons, the team was doubtful about how effective gamification is to motivate people to reach their weight loss goals. Without financial incentives or the risk of reputation, how influential could gamification be?


Competitive Factors

In the control group, certain people with weight loss goals didn’t engage in competition, and people in a treatment group with similar goals enrolled to compete. “What we found was that exercise-only groups were more successful,” says Bojd. This means people lost more weight in the exercise groups than in the diet groups.

Simply put, competition motivates people to take action. In diet competitions, the focus is often on what foods people avoid eating. “We couldn’t really run a field experiment to be accurate about the reason for this,” Bojd says, “but we could theorize that this was because exercise is about taking action, whereas with diet it’s about what you’re not eating or what you’re not doing. It’s easier to increase your steps or how far you run using the gamification method, but it’s very challenging to gamify how little sugar you consume or how few cheeseburgers you eat.

“We also know competition can create stress, and stress doesn’t help when it comes to diet-related regulations.” However, stress can be a positive motivator to take action, Bojd says.


Surprise Results

In each of the exercise groups, specific instructions included 100 push-ups a day or walking 1,000 steps, among others. Some of the participants had a specific additional target. “For example, some participants wanted to lose this much weight in this amount of time,” says Bojd. “Surprisingly, we found that the absence of a target was more helpful, which is a bit counterintuitive.”

It is difficult to explain this result, but Bojd’s team has a theory: “We believe people were comparing themselves to the leaders in the competition. You can see how much they walked or how much they exercised, but if you have a target in mind, then the element of social comparison becomes weaker.”

If people achieve their personal goals, they don’t care if they are in third or last place on the leaderboard because they already achieved their goals, says Bojd. To fire up the competition, an individual person’s goal may not be a great way to incentivize people. “We can’t prove this, but based on our research, it seems like a specific target weakens the effect of social competition.”


Increased Engagement

The research team also found that, in smaller group sizes, people benefit more from competition. “We think this is probably because of the social comparison factor,” Bojd says. “Elements of social comparison create more meaningful competition in smaller groups. In larger groups, the top 10% of people might feel very proud of themselves, but for the other 90%—the people who need more of a push or an incentive—their ranking doesn’t motivate them to keep going. That means weight loss programs that use gamification incentives should keep their groups smaller if they want to increase engagement and improve results.”

Unfortunately, Bojd and her team were unable to interview participants to determine for sure if their theory is correct. The overall pattern, however, is gamification works for exercise instructions, but it doesn’t work for dieting.

“We found that, on average, the people in the gamification group were losing one kilogram per month compared to the control group, so it seems like leaderboards work—at least when it comes to weight loss.”


Staying Active

Bojd’s motivation to engage in this type of research is simple: “I have a personal interest in fitness, well-being and health-related outcomes,” she says. “Nowadays it’s even easier to get access to data about how people set goals and engage in pursuing their goals. The availability of the data was a big factor.”

Another aspect of Bojd’s research focuses on how best to design platforms that engage people more. The marketing world is mostly measured by driving sales, she says. In this context, however, it is more about how we can engage people to achieve their personal weight loss goals.

“It’s not only about designing a platform where you can increase consumer engagement, but it’s also about helping people get what they want. It’s a real win-win situation. The platform is engaging more people, and the people are achieving their goals. Gamification helps people experience the excitement of competition and helps the platform keep people engaged with their product.”


Basic Instincts

Prior to the study, Bojd believed competition is mainly about external achievement. For instance, on The Biggest Loser television show, there is a financial prize and a reputation factor, she says. Based on their research, though, gamification works despite a free website, no prizes, and competition among strangers.

“The simplicity of the leaderboard was really all that was necessary to produce the results. That was very surprising to me. Competition with strangers can make you more committed to your goals. It’s funny and, at the same time, a little sad how we as human beings are so wired to compete, but at least in this case, it’s being leveraged for something meaningful.”


Best Results

What are the implications of this research for the fitness industry? “What we found about the differences between diet and exercise and how people need different incentives to commit to their goals is very interesting,” Bojd says. “We know we need both diet and exercise to become healthier. We can’t expect to exercise to remain healthy without changing our diets, nor can we diet without doing some exercise. They go hand in hand.”

However, Bojd and her fellow researchers found that we need specific incentives for each type if we want people to become more committed to certain methods of weight loss. “Diet and exercise are different animals. If someone is a life coach, or health coach, and they have clients who need to address their diet first, it’s not effective to put them in a competition mindset, but for clients who need to train, or who want to be more active, the competition incentive is most likely to produce the best results.”


Fitness Goals

Today, as more people have wearable devices or use smartphones to track their steps, this creates a wonderful opportunity for companies to develop apps that use this data to help people achieve their diet and exercise goals, and if they can leverage the gamification side for those wanting to become more active, they should see better results.

“The fitness industry should definitely use the gamification features to induce competition and leverage social comparison in a way that they can engage more users,” Bojd says. “They’ll have more successful users, which will bring in more clients via word of mouth.”

Based on this research, people who set resolutions in the new year to lose weight, exercise more and become healthier may do well to join small group weight loss competitions to achieve quick and better results.