For most of us, it’s never easy to stay motivated in our battle against our own over-consumptive lifestyles.  That is because most of us do not have the patience to see results or get feedback from all our efforts.  Much less do we have the initiative—and patience—of doing the math of excess calories and carbon emissions.  Sensing our every move and giving us immediate feedback are just the kind of dirty work that we need technology for; five kinds, to be precise. I’ll explain how it more or less works.

All pain and unseen gain

In a symposium talk I delivered last December at St. Paul University Quezon City’s Business and Technology Week, I spoke about two “enemies of modern man”: lifestyle diseases and Climate Change.  The effects are bad for business in that we become unfit to work, and the air around us isn't helping.  Both are stoked by our own lifestyle that gravitates on pleasure and convenience.  There are simple but painstaking solutions: we have to control what we consume, and work out what we have already consumed through exercise and human-powered mobility.  The latter also spares us from carbon emissions that can be produced by driving typical urban automobiles.

Enough said.  Consume if we must, but we don't have a fusion cannon--or transform to a Walther P-38--to burst out our calories.  Since Transformers have fixed metal bodies, they don't get fat; they get drunk as demonstrated in Season 2.
Doing the math with spreadsheets and a calorie-calculating web site, I first quantified the life of a typical young professional doing a white-collar job in an urban setting.  That means me back in 2008.  My daily grind was defined by riding jeepneys to the office, doing the usual 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., eating lunch in cafeteria or “jolly-jeep”, and snacking on chips, biscuits and coffee.  The table below sums it up.

The "hang ten" means items that may have benefits, but they also have offsetting disadvantages.  As shown, it's not surprising why many tend to "blow up" after college.  Eating more rice than your body needs is bad for your BMI--and the country's plan for rice security.
It’s so for been a year of bike-commuting for me, and I’d say I’ve pedaled my way to saving considerable money and time, and burning considerable calories in the process.  Those aren’t the only gains, and not just for me.  We all know biking or walking emits no carbon dioxide and other harmful gases and particulate matter.  Most of us just don’t know how much we spared Planet Earth, and each other (especially those most prone to respiratory diseases), in terms of kilograms of carbon compounds.  Using spreadsheets again, and a cyclocomputer, I did the math for that too.

Consider your typical Honda Civic or Toyota Vios as emitting 150g of CO2 per kilometer of smooth travel.  That doesn't even count yet carbon particulates and sulfur compounds, and the number and duration of idle times during stops.  Imagine a jeepney idling its engine waiting for a full load of commuters.
If exercise and human-powered mobility have that much health and environmental benefits to offer, then how come many are still not engaged?  Compared to just how absorbed they are on time-wasting online games like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, how can we engage a population, especially the at-risk ones, to engage in a game of life that they can actually win--literally?

Game elements

Exercising, bike-commuting and walking provide the same thing online game apps also provide: simple engagement.  There is always something to gain, whatever that may be for an individual concerned.  The simplicity of rules or structures, however, is also what entices engagement by reducing the complexity of figuring things out.  When an activity has too many rules, or too rigid a structure, we feel inconvenienced and balk from the thought engaging ourselves.  But when structures are simple, coupled with immediate and precise feedback—such as points and even rewards—the opposite of balking happens.  Sooner or later, we also tend to get absorbed into the activity.

The latest element to be added into the mix is the social aspect.  The computer or app can reward milestones based on pre-configured math and body mechanics like your weight, height and displacement from Point A to Point B.  But that’s not good enough, isn’t it?

When exercise app designers throw social into the mix, individuals can now compare performance metrics against others engaged in the same activity.  Cyclists, runners, swimmers and triathletes use apps like Garmin Connect, Strava, Endomondo and Google Fit to receive data on distance, speed, calories and power (usually from pedaling).  The community can then see who logged the longest distance or burned the most calories in a day, week, month or year.  Some of the apps give badges as rewards.  The competitive spirit kicks in, so much so that they’ll think about badges during work, and dream about them while asleep.

A typical Monthly Training Series challenge by Strava.  Even those weak at math can enjoy the simple thrill of seeing numbers pile up--and one's self piling up on top of everybody else on the leader board.  The prize (circled): better health and a digital badge on your mobile app or personal Strava account.
Disruptive as that sounds, it’s physically a whole lot better than any online game set in imaginary worlds.  Remember, we live in Planet Earth, not in an imaginary jar of candies or historically-incorrect medieval states.

Enabling technologies

There are five enabling technologies at work (or at play) in the framework of the gamification of lifestyle improvement.  Below is how they connect.

Not so hard to figure out, isn't it?
It all begins with…

Wearables or mobile devices: My bike and I have and use wearables.  Yes, my bike has one: a Cateye Velo Wireless+ cyclocomputer.  I use a Garmin Swim for counting strokes per length, measuring speed and calculating calories burned based on my weight and age.  The cyclocomputer logs distances, measures speed, provides an estimate of calories burned (based solely on hours of cycling) and calculates CO2 we spare the atmosphere (at 150 grams per kilometer traveled).  Most sports wearable tech don’t have apps that are Wi-Fi-ready; mobile phones do, but they don’t have dedicated sports sensors and you can’t immerse them in water.  As far as sensing goes, these two make a tandem.  After sensing and pre-processing, data are sent to…

Cloud apps: These are software as services.  A few are paid, but most are free.  They are found in the “cloud” (a “cloud” of servers acting as one domain hosting a variety of related services accessible by any internet-ready device).  These do the bulk of the processing which may include…

Analytics: These include the statistics programs that determine means, modes, maximums and minimums from raw performance metrics.  Their modeling programs can “coach” individual participants by displaying performance drill-downs and targets (distance, speed, pace, heart rate, etc.).  Analytics are good when they go with…

Social media: This is the part of the cloud app that tells you how you rank in the midst of other members of the community.  For many cyclists and runners, it also shows which routes are the most preferred by community members; quantitatively based on GPS data sent by wearables and mobile devices, and, qualitatively based on members’ likes and ratings.

Promises and challenges

Combined, these five technologies give feedback similar to having a personal trainer or coach.  If you’re really serious, however, only a human coach can give insight.  Analytics and social media can only go so far.

This framework of five enabling technologies, and the gamification of lifestyle change, versus ill effects of lifestyles to self and the environment are very promising to other sectors, aside from individuals.  Granted that there will be no ethical concerns, the public works sector can use the big data for planning the next bike lanes or carless Sundays.  The public health sector can view the bigger picture of the health risks on the population related to obesity and diabetes.  The promises don’t end there, but for researchers—especially in the academe—we have to start somewhere.

As for the ordinary wearables user now hooked to exercise and human-powered mobility, don’t measure yourself too much, though.  The temptation to look at your watch instead of the road is strong, and so is the pressing need to open your sports apps to check if you’re beating everybody else.  Gamification can help improve lives by helping us master ourselves; just don’t ever let it master you.

(The author delivered the topics of this post as "Emerging I.T. vs. Lifestyle Diseases and Climate Change" during the recent 2014 Business and Technology Week of St. Paul University Quezon City.  Popularly known as the BizTech Week, it is held every late November or early December in the campus of the said institution with satellite activities held in other venues.  The purpose of the annual event is to gather business partners, educators and other stakeholders to address socioeconomic issues.)
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