Shaping for Shape

I am continuing to find more help in my professional life for my personal life, such as for increasing my physical fitness. There are all kinds of behavioral principles at work here! What’s working for me right now?

  • Tracking what I eat
  • A reward system
  • Short, intense workouts I can do at home with minimal equipment
  • “Training plans,” or just planning ahead
  • Flexibility and a good attitude!

Tracking What I Eat

You know how you always hear that a food diary is a great way to lose weight? Turns out there’s something to it, after all. Research shows that tracking one’s food intake six days out of seven resulted in an average of double the weight loss of control dieters (article here) — that’s significant! How does this work?

Traditional thinking says tracking can guilt people into making better decisions, as in “I don’t want to have to record this candy bar, so I guess I won’t eat it.” And maybe that approach does work for some people. I, on the other hand, don’t want to think of eating as a guilt-ridden, miserable activity, so I approach tracking a bit differently.

It’s a game! And I get paid for it!

I use SparkPeople‘s Nutrition Tracker, online or on my mobile phone. It’s easy to use and always available. Plus, I get reward points for entering all food items, even if they’re unhealthy choices, so awareness is more rewarding than ignorance. (More on reward points in a bit!) Even just thinking about my choices can be rewarding, and for some people with a long habit of making poor decisions, that’s the achievable starting point — the Point of Success in TAGteach.

TAGulatorOne of the most earliest statements on this I heard from Theresa McKeon, co-founder of TAGteach, years ago at a session at ClickerExpo. She was explaining a TAGulator on one’s beltloop for self-tagging, such as “Make a decision about having the cookie in the buffet. It doesn’t matter what the decision is, just tag for making the decision.” What a lovely way to get in the practice of eating conscientiously instead of haphazardly! And it allows for indulgence, so long as it’s intentional. Perfect. Later, if you want to raise criteria to making a particular decision, go ahead, but start at the Point of Success.

This also is an educational tool; I didn’t realize, for example, that the apple dumpling I picked up as a snack on a fall outing was in fact more than half of my day’s calorie intake! I tracked it and made a mental note for the future — next time, share the dumpling! (There was no mental punishment; more on that below.)

Can I track everything, exactly? No. Not every food product is in the SparkPeople database, and sometimes it’s not cool to pull out the smartphone and enter my meal. But I can get pretty close, and even the study cited above showed success with less than 100% tracking.

A Reward System

I’ve posted here and on our Facebook page a number of times on operant conditioning applied in the entertainment gaming industry — video games rely hugely on advanced behavioral principles for maximum player interaction. You’ve probably heard of video game addiction (even though it’s rare, it gets a lot of press space); it means they’re doing a very efficient job!

We think of addiction as bad, but we want to be addicted to healthy habits! And the designers at SparkPeople are doing a great job of applying operant conditioning to health habits. “SparkPoints” are awarded for a variety of activities, from tracking diet and exercising to reading health-related articles or blogging about how hard it is making it through your office party. And as in many interactive sites and video gaming systems, trophies are awarded for various achievements or point levels. Like any good shaping plan, points are plentiful and easy in the beginning, and then criteria is raised. And occasional jackpots are available!

While SparkPoints can be traded for site rewards (virtual gifts to oneself or a friend, special icons, etc.), I find them most motivating as simple reward markers. They are just beads on a TAGteach tagulator — useless on their own, but significant because I’ve earned them.

My SparkPoints

I'm sure this is small to some -- but it's big to ME.

Is it kind of silly to get excited because I got a badge on my profile which says I’ve logged 250 fitness minutes, or because I’m more than halfway to my next SparkPoints level where I get a new shiny icon? Of course it is! But it’s no more silly than a gamer logging hours of play to earn that upgraded virtual armor set, or a X-box achievement for answering so many quiz questions in a row, or getting that special item to boost your imaginary farm. It’s all about finding something that we personally recognize as achievement and reinforcement.

If the points didn’t matter to me, I could convert them into a currency for something that did matter — every so many points, for example, I could get a massage, or buy a fun new mobile app, or whatever might feel like more of a tangible reward. As in good training, the subject determines what is reinforcing; if the points aren’t enough, find something which is!

Short, Intense Workouts

I bore easily. That is, I am in normal life never bored, because I always have something productive to do. So most of traditional “exercise” bores me, because I feel that time on the elliptical machine is lost time. It’s dull and repetitive and unproductive.

PROBLEM: Bored subject doesn’t want to participate in behavior, finds long-term reinforcement (fitness after repeated and consistent sessions) too little to balance physical and mental cost of behavior. SOLUTION: Engage subject in alternate behavior, with more immediate reinforcement including mental stimulation. Provide additional reinforcement in form of SparkPoints awarded for each minute spent in exercise.

dive bomber pushup

This is a dive-bomber pushup, and I CAN DO THESE NOW.

Enter, which I discovered by accident and which is quickly becoming a new habit. Most workouts are just 12-15 minutes long, but they are physically and mentally intense. This means I have to focus on the workout, and my mind can’t wander off and wonder what else I could be accomplishing instead, and I still get physical results.

Bonus: I can do everything at home, right in my living room, right beside my computer, with very little in the way of gym equipment. No time or gas or money lost going to a gym, etc. No excuses, either!

The result is, while I had a 21% success rate in keeping my daily physical therapy exercises, even though the session was only five minutes long, I have a 86% success rate in keeping my daily BodyRock workouts, which are much harder and three times as long. Never discount the importance of mental engagement and immediate reinforcement!

Someone else might find another kind of workout more rewarding — perhaps a longer workout which allows him to mentally relax might feel like a private personal indulgence, for example. Find what’s most reinforcing!

While BodyRock does usually publish a workout schedule, with hundreds of workouts in the archives I can adapt as necessary. More on adaptation later.

“Training Plans,” or, Planning Ahead

popcorn and movie

Ah, oil-popped locally-grown popcorn at my favorite classic cinema house, how I must budget for thee....

One thing the SparkPeople Nutrition Tracker does well is constant feedback on how much of your day’s calorie range you have left. (And it’s a range, not a fixed number.) Again, I use this not as a threat — “you’d better not eat more than 400 more calories!” — but for informational and planning purposes — “wow, that was a heavier lunch, so I’ll have more veggies with dinner.”

Being able to make this decision in advance helps me to plan for success, which is always easier than trying to pull a miracle solution out of nowhere under pressure. It’s also easier to make decisions in advance; a couple of times I’ve pulled up a restaurant menu online and chosen an entree in advance, because I knew that once at the restaurant and already very hungry and listening to friends order deep-fried options on either side of me, it would be harder to make the decision. Obviously that’s not necessary all the time! or even often, but sometimes, it’s okay — or even preferable — to give yourself the extra help toward success!

Wait a minute — doesn’t planning a session, setting criteria, and thinking of proactive or management solutions to potential problems sound awfully familiar? That’s what good clicker trainers do every day! But it’s useful here, too; “Women who jot down their workout targets, imagine meeting their goals, list any potential obstacles and think of ways to beat those barriers notch an extra hour of calorie-blasting activity a week.” (article here) Even without trying to add extra exercise, being conscious and goal-oriented tends to make it happen.

Flexibility and a Good Attitude!

So, all of the above is very nice, but what about when it just doesn’t work out? Hey, we’re clicker trainers! Mistakes happen, and we plan to fix ’em and we move on!

Yesterday, for example, I finished lunch and entered my meal. “Oops,” I said, and I showed my phone to Alena, who was entering her meal as well. “Look — I’ve got 34 calories left for the day.”

“And we have dinner and hors d’oeuvres at the Children’s Museum event tonight.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure they’re going to have a 34-calorie canape for me there.” We laughed, and we went on. And I ate more than 34 calories at the museum that night.

Training isn’t about perfection, it’s about improvement. It’s about consistency rather than robotics. Food and activity isn’t a tiresome, guilty chore, it’s a valuable part of life.

Because I’m a smaller female, I have a fairly low caloric requirement compared to many others. Even with my six-days-a-week exercise habit, my current recommended caloric intake is under 1500 calories. That’s hard to meet in this culture, with huge portions and food an integral part of so many activities, and it would be very easy to get hung up on counting calories and self-castigation over failure.

But because my calorie-counting is a game, not an evasive exercise, there is little guilt or punishment. Oops — I didn’t meet criteria this time. Guess I’ll have to try again. It’s the same as withholding a click from a dog who didn’t quite reach the target. Oops — try again, and this time you’ll get it.


So how is this working for me? Well, I’ve lost seven pounds and gained visible muscle in the four weeks since I started this new, user-friendly, customized-to-me structure. (It’s not a “diet,” which sounds restrictive.) And I know I gained some weight back over this rocky weekend, after a trip to the movie theater (two days’ worth of calories!), two dinner gatherings, and the museum event. But I’m not beating myself up and I’m not discouraged; I know I’ll catch up with some planning and smart decisions. Because that’s all behavioral change is, and I’m choosing to reinforce the smart decisions!

Note: SparkPeople and BodyRock are wholly free. I am not associated with either except as a user, and I get no credit for referring readers. I am part of the faculty at the Karen Pryor Academy, and the ClickerExpo link is an affiliate link which helps to reinforce me for blogging. 😉

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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