We’ve got more than 120 fitness facilities all across the world partnering with us and our Whole30 program as part of their commitment to good nutrition. We love hearing their success stories – members who are performing better, sleeping better, feeling happier, and reducing their symptoms of any number of lifestyle-related diseases and conditions within just a few weeks. We hope their successes will encourage other gyms to take on the Whole30 program, and will offer as much support as we can in your gym’s efforts, too.

But before you do, we’d like to wax poetic about one common “nutrition challenge” structure we see, and why we think this theme will, in the long run, actually hurt your members’ results.

How to Measure “Clean Eating”

Many gyms seek to measure compliance with their members’ nutrition challenges. Calculating something that’s relatively intangible to begin with – “clean eating” – can be difficult, which is why gyms often create their own set of regulations. These rules are designed to statistically measure adherence to the program as outlined, usually by assigning points for various degrees of compliance.

One such program outlined zero points if you eat “perfect Paleo,” one point if you include one individual transgression, two points if you fall off the wagon for an entire meal, and three points if your whole day goes to hell in a handbasket. Those who accumulate the least amount of “points” during the 30 day period are said to have achieved the greatest “success” with the challenge.

But in our experience – and we’ve got plenty – implementing a point system in conjunction with your nutritional challenge is a recipe for disaster. While a point assignment strategy seems a logical way to measure compliance, any such system is doomed to backfire.

There’s a Disconnect Here…

A group of day care centers in Israel were all experiencing a common issue – late pick-ups. Parents were arriving late at the end of the day, forcing the centers to stay open late, and pay their workers overtime. In an effort to curb these late pick-ups, the centers introduced a financial penalty. Parents who arrived more than 10 minutes late had to pay a $3 penalty for each incident. The idea was that a fine would discourage parents from arriving late.

However, after the fine was introduced, the number of late pick-ups actually increased – more than doubled, in fact. Parents now measured the financial difficulty of a small fine (minimal) against having to cut their tennis game short (troublesome), and opted for the fine. Their child’s well-being, however, no longer played a part in their decision making process.

The institution of a fine substituted an economic incentive (a $3 penalty) with a moral incentive (responsibility to your child). For just a few dollars a day, the parents could buy off their guilt.

And for that reason, a point assignment as a penalty for making poor food choices will backfire.

A point system serves to disassociate the nutritional choices you make (eating the cookie) with your actual physical consequences (blood sugar volatility, sugar cravings, digestive distress). Instead, you now face a different choice: forgo the delicious cookie, or incur “a point.” Which one sounds more appetizing to you?

Don’t Sell Your Results Short

In our admittedly unofficial survey (mostly anecdotal evidence and first-hand accounts from gym members), gyms who institute a penalty or point system have far less compliance – and far less impressive results – than a gym who implements a detailed, structured program exactly as outlined, with no room for “cheats” or “slips.” By implementing a point system, it’s almost as though the gym members are expected to fail at some point or another during their month. “We want you to eat well, but since that might be hard, here’s an arbitrary system to measure how well you actually ate.”

Except the system doesn’t measure a thing. Who knows whether a one point day means you had a little added sugar in your balsamic, or a dirty martini with breakfast? Does earning 12 points over a 30 day period mean you had four entire days off the reservation, or that you included one thing you weren’t supposed to eat three days a week for the duration of the challenge? And regardless… which is “worse?”

The alternative to an arbitrary point system? Demand 100% compliance for the full 30 days, just like we do here, with our Whole30 program. No cheats, no slips, no “But Coach, it’s my birthday!” Outline the plan, insist that members follow the letter of the law for 30 full days, and measure compliance like you measure pregnancy – you either are, or you’re not.

Set the standards high, because you think nutrition is that important. Outline your expectations clearly, so everyone knows what is required of them. Present your members with their best shot at success, because the Whole30 done with 80% compliance means your members will see (you know what’s coming…) 20% of the results. And give your members the opportunity to experience the full range of benefits that are sure to come at the end of their 30 days – which is, in fact, the real point of the challenge.

9 Steps to a Successful Nutrition Challenge

For those of you who want to structure a nutrition challenge for your gym, read our article, 9 Steps to a Successful Nutrition Challenge, for our best tips on buy-in, compliance, and stellar results.