This sponsored post is produced in association with Humana

The formula for losing weight is no secret: the calorie burn rate needs to be higher than the calorie intake. The same goes for quitting smoking. Just quit. Easy.

Everyone who has tried to change behaviors like these knows that in reality it is not so straight-forward. Motivating people to establish healthy habits and make significant changes is — yes — rocket science.

Social media can improve health outcomes

There are three factors needed to accomplish behavior change: A person must be sufficiently motivated, be able to perform the behavior, and be triggered to change the behavior; and all events must happen at the same time. The research team at Stanford Persuasion Technology Lab who has outlined these factors, describes the core motivators being pleasure/pain, hope/fear, and acceptance/rejection.

It’s clear that social mechanisms are key in incentivizing changes, being it good ones or bad ones. MobiHealthNews Research reports that social media and games can encourage teamwork, friendly competition, and accountability. For example, patients with certain chronic diseases can find valuable support and sources of information in online communities. Or a group of friends or co-workers can encourage each other to exercise more frequently.

Enter the online world. Social media gives individuals the ability to influence a high number of people. The Stanford team talks about the “democratization of persuasion”, where these processes are argued to lead to better health outcomes than when persuasion is controlled by medical professionals or healthcare interest groups. It’s suggested that social networks can help us achieve what we could not achieve on our own. No question, how we think — and how others think — affects our health behavior, as insurers like Humana are recognizing.

Games satisfy fundamental desires

Social tools provide the means to motivate health-related behavior change. Social media and games definitely put on the pressure. But how do game mechanics actually work?

Debra Lieberman, director of the Health Games Research national program and researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara, emphasizes that storytelling is important for behavior change. It teaches us what is likely to be rewarding and punishing. She argues that game mechanics work since games satisfy some of our fundamental desires: reward, competition, status, achievement, and altruism. Airlines and hotels have been using these mechanisms in their customer programs for years.

Lieberman’s conclusions are also backed up by the research of others. There are a growing number of clinical trials showing that games can change health behavior and improve outcomes for various conditions. The first convincing study was perhaps Nintendo’s game Packy and Marlon from 1994, which challenges the player to manage the diabetic main character’s blood glucose level. Compared to a control group playing another game, children with diabetes who played Packy and Marlon could see their emergency care visits related to diabetes decrease by 77%.

Further studies on conditions such as addiction, depression, and autism spectrum disorders have highlighted the health benefits from using games. The same has been shown in changing dietary habits, improving fitness motivation, and losing weight. In a study published in Nature 2013, a UCSF team showed that playing a specially-designed car racing game, Neuroracer, improved neural plasticity in older adults, and improved their ability to multitask and to filter out distractions.

Mobile technology tool for change

Rewards and incentives play a critical role in motivating healthy behavior change. It’s obvious that mobile technology will play a major role in reaching out to people and keeping them on track with their healthy habits. Knowing about different types of behavior change will be crucial when designing and developing mobile technology as a tool for persuasion. In order to make people successful in making lifestyle changes they need to get into the game.

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