Last December, Michael Garcia started going to his local Dave & Buster in Gaithersburg, Maryland to play an arcade game called Pump It Up.. Players move their bodies to the beat of the music as colorful arrows light up on a platform below their feet. As the levels progress, the beats get faster and more complicated.
Coming soon, Garcia, 26, was hooked. He used to play the game for just an hour or two a week – but these days he’s just as likely to play all day. “Saturday, I stayed here for 8 hours,” he says. “I even brought a packed lunch with me just so I could carry on.”
Garcia says he started to see positive changes in his body. He was losing weight and feeling fitter than he had in a long time. But the thing is, when he played Pump It Up, he never felt as if training. Why was that?
It turns out there’s a whole area of research dedicated to this question: fitness gamification. It’s “trying to do things we want to do that are usually tedious and boring [like exercise] – and find ways to make them fun,” says Dr. Mitesh Patelresearcher on this subject and leader of the behavioral analysis team of the Ascension healthcare group.
Games like Pump It Up are enjoyable, he says, because they take things that make games addictive — dots, levels and challenges, for example — and merge them with physical movement. This powerful combination motivates people to keep playing…and exercising.
The good news is that we can take these techniques and apply them to our daily fitness routines. Life Kit talks to Patel and Elizabeth Lyonsassociate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch who studies how gamification can motivate exercise in older women, on how to make exercise as fun as a video game.
1. Have a goal
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
When you play a game, there is always a goal. It helps us focus on the task at hand and motivates us to keep playing until we win the game. Exercise should be no different, says Patel. Create a clear fitness goal. Try walking 10,000 steps a day, for example, or try running a total of 6 miles each week.
But to see your progress and know if you’ve reached your goal, it’s helpful to track your physical activity, says Patel. This includes steps, heart rate, and distance traveled, among other data. And there are many digital tools that can help with this: wearable technology like the Fitbit or the apple watchor smartphone apps that may come free with your device (such as Health app on iPhone) or downloadable for free as GoogleFit Where Strava.
You can also ditch the high-tech methods and go old-school, says Patel. If your goal is to do something physically active for at least 150 minutes a week, for example, you could simply write down how much time you spent exercising in a notebook.
2. Compete against others…
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Research suggests that adding a competitive element to your exercise routine can actually help you train…harder. In a study published in JAMA internal medicine In 2019, Patel and a team of researchers challenged 602 overweight and obese employees at a single company to participate in a step-tracking challenge. The group asked compete against other employees ended up walking more steps than any other group in the study.
If you’re looking for a similar motivation, look for fitness programs that encourage friendly competition. The app Zwiftfor example, lets you race against others in a virtual world using your own bike and treadmill (with purchase of sensors and other equipment to track data). And many companies offer wellness challenges to their employees through their health insurance providers. Cignafor example, offers a fitness app that allows employees to compete against other teams.
And don’t forget the fitness video games! In addition to Pump It Up, you can also try the Ring shaped adventure, a game that combines role-playing elements with fitness. Players fight enemies by jogging in place and pushing and pulling a ring-shaped controller to battle in-game enemies. The game tracks your scores and progress against your friends on a leaderboard.
If you have a virtual reality headset, you can try Supernaturala boxing and meditation game, or beat the saber, a game that requires you to use your arms to smash your way through musical notes. Play against a friend to become competitive.
3. …Or team up with them
In this same 2019 JAMA study, the researchers found that collaboration – getting a group to work together toward a common goal – was too an effective way to increase physical activity. Another subset of participants were asked to split into teams of three. Each day, one member of the group was randomly selected to represent the whole team with their individual step count for the day. This approach encouraged each member of the group to try to reach the step goal for the day. No one wanted to let their team members down.
You can try to recreate that dynamic by working toward an exercise goal with other people, especially those with whom you have a close relationship, Patel says. They can help “hold you accountable in ways you couldn’t with a stranger,” he says. And you’ll be less likely to break training commitments if someone you love is relying on you to help them reach their own fitness goals. So grab a close friend or family member and bring them to the gym with you – there’s a reason the “gym buddy” exists.
4. Add an element of fantasy
Elizabeth Lyons of the University of Texas Medical Branch says some people like video games because there’s a lot of unpredictability and surprise.
Lyons tries to emulate these characteristics in his own fitness game designs. As part of her research, she created a Facebook page to help motivate older women in Galveston, Texas to take daily walks. To keep participants going, she posts fun challenges on the page. For example, she asks women to take a photo of something on their walk that looks like a book cover – or mark as many different types of trees as possible from a checklist she shares at advance. In response, participants are sharing photos and comments on the Facebook post with updates on what they have discovered during their walks.
“A lot of things we tried to do with [the] challenges is to bring back a sense of childlike wonder,” she says — kind of like what you get when you first explore a video game world.
You can recreate that fancy feeling in your own exercises, Lyons says. Take photos of at least 5 different flowers as you walk around the neighborhood. Cycle from home to friend to friend. Beat your personal best to the top of a trail.
And remember, Lyons says — every moment of playful engagement — active or not — is a win. If exercising, even for a few minutes, makes you “a little bit happy or fulfilled or adds some kind of meaning to your life, that’s fine.”
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen with technical support from Stu Rushfield. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We would love to hear from you. Leave us a voice message at 202-216-9823or email us at [email protected].