These Fitness Video Games Are So Much Fun, You Won’t Even Realize You’re Working Out

Photo: Getty images/Westend61
Aside from very short, very intense love affairs with Dance Dance Revolution and The Sims (yes, I can still recall the top five cheat codes), I wouldn't exactly call myself a "gamer." But when my partner recently brought home a Nintendo Switch ($80) and a fitness-focused game called "Ring Fit Adventure," I was intrigued. After nearly a year of working out at home, I'd been searching for something that would give me the same level of excitement (and motivation) I used to draw from IRL classes. Could fitness video games be the solution I needed to pull me out of my pandemic-induced exercise rut? The answer, I quickly found, was a resounding, "yes."

Video game-based exercise (or "gamercise," for the newly acquainted) is a form of fitness tech that tethers physical workouts to virtual worlds. Think: squatting alongside dragons or spinning through a digitized version of Central Park. Unlike many of the workouts I've tried during quarantine, it isn't another tedious way to track your steps or monitor your heart rate. Instead, it's good, sweaty fun that provides a much-needed dose of alternate reality, and a passport to another time and place when many of us haven't been able to leave our neighborhoods in almost a year.

While a new gaming system can be costly upfront (the Nintendo Switch will run you a cool $80), it's likely less than the price of that monthly studio membership—and cheaper than the latest stationary bike. Most importantly, though, it might just be the missing connection to the endorphin-fueled joy and transportive energy you used to get from your favorite class.

To see which fitness video games are worth the hype (and the price), I test-piloted four virtual workout experiences. The biggest takeaway? You can get so lost in the game, you'll barely realize you're sweating.

If you're willing to suspend reality for the sake of your workout: Ring Fit Adventure on Nintendo Switch,  $80

The Ring Fit Adventure is like a Wii Fit (aka the original video game workout) taken up a notch or two. It's also delightfully weird. The premise? You've been charged with defeating a buff and powerful dragon named Dragaux, and the only way to match his might is to get fit yourself. There are no swords or arrows in your arsenal—just squats and bicep curls. On your way, you'll encounter the dragon's equally ripped cronies who are out to fight you and your magic Pilates ring.

Once you have your Switch set up, you'll strap one of the two controllers (called a joy-con) to your left upper thigh, and attach the other one directly to the "ring-con," a Pilates ring used for dynamic movements. You'll raise, lower, pull apart, and squeeze your ring all while running, jumping, and high-stepping. It sounds like a lot—and it is!  But it's fun. By incorporating repetitive movements and bodyweight exercises into a fantastical quest, Ring Fit Adventure fully tricked me into believing that 22 consecutive squats is actually enjoyable—and that holding chair pose is an effective way to defeat a mini monster. Plus, it had me sweating after 15 minutes.

Shop now: Ring Fit Adventure on Nintendo Switch, $80

If you're looking to adventure from home: Zwift, $15/month

This app turns any at-home spin bike into a virtual gaming console that can mentally transport you far, far away from your living-room-turned-fitness-studio. Thanks to its video-integrated rides, I've pedaled my way down the California coastline, which felt like the closest thing  I got to vacation all year. Originally designed to help serious cyclists who typically slog through indoor training during the colder months, Zwift's gamified experience has made spinning fun for people at every level. After choosing an avatar, you're ready to hit the (virtual) road, and high-five thousands of other riders around the world.

You can choose an online event to participate in (a race down the Champs-Élysées, perhaps?), or careen through the Zwift-created cyber world of Wattopia. While I'm not super competitive by nature, training with Zwift made me want to consistently push myself harder and faster as the game kept reminding me to "close the gap" between myself and other riders. Within minutes, I was reaching PRs I didn't even know I was working towards, and the only thing that mattered was racing across the finish line. You can download Zwift on a phone or tablet and pair it with any sort of bike you choose to invest in. The ability to hop on an early morning ride through Central Park (by way of my screen, at least) is a magical way to start the day—and not to mention, a pretty solid workout.

Shop now: Zwift ($15/month)

If you used to dominate Dance, Dance Revolution: Zumba Burn It Up for Nintendo Switch, $34

Though I'm no stranger to dancing around my kitchen to The Strokes, I've yet to go to an IRL Zumba class for fear of public embarrassment. I'm way more comfortable with the idea of shaking it out in the privacy of my home. Before trying Zumba Burn It Up, I was legitimately worried I wouldn't be able to keep up with the beat, my fear of humiliation went right out the window as soon as I started moving my feet. The program is easy-to-follow (even for newbies like me), and allows you to choose your class length for 15, 30, 45 minutes, and intensity level.

It features Zumba-world legends—including the modality's founder, Beto Perez—plus highly danceable tracks from Cardi B, Ciara, and Bad Bunny. Thanks to the workout's cardio-heavy nature, after my first few songs I was definitely breathing heavily. But the thing that I loved most was that there's no calorie counter or step tracker on the screen (though there is an option to include them, if you so choose)—just the instructors dancing it out. Playing the game really feels like you're at a dance party, and lets you get into the Zumba zone without worrying about hitting any workout goals.

If your Podcast Queue Is Filled With Murder Mysteries: The Walk, $6 a month

Your outdoor walks are about to get a lot more interesting thanks to The Walk, a story-focused app that puts you smack in the middle of a murder mystery.  The premise? There's been a bombing at a train station, and you're an accidental agent responsible for saving the world (it's all in your hands—or feet, as it were). As you walk, the steps you log in your own neighborhood correlate to a virtual map of Inverness, Scotland, with clues and collectibles along the way. In order to complete your mission, you'll need to effectively cover the terrain of the entire U.K. (about 500 miles or 800 kilometers, if you're counting).

And you are—consider the game to be a highly engaging pedometer. While you're out living your daily civilian life, walking your pup, getting the mail, or heading down the block for takeout, the app runs in the background, tracking your steps. As you hit certain benchmarks, you can play episodic segments of the story as they occur in the virtual world—the one where you're the sole person who can save the human race, of course—and the only way to find out what happens next is to keep walking. The game—which was built in partnership with the U.K.'s National Health Service—also uses "adaptive fitness technology," which means it can reduce or increase the time it takes to complete a full episode based on your daily activity levels. The Walk totally got me out of my head in the best possible way—and it also made me even more certain that a few of my neighbors were involved in an international spy ring.

Shop now: The Walk, $6 a month

For a fun workout that doesn't require a console, follow along with the video below.

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