The Gamification of Fitness Is Booming, but What Are Its Benefits and Potential Downsides?
“Since then, I've been fascinated with the intersection of gaming, brain health, behavior, and fitness," says Glatt, who is now director of the FitBrain program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute. "While we don’t have a lot of clear evidence around the neurological mechanism of exergaming, we theorize that it can act on the reward pathways of the brain and engage areas responsible for goal-oriented behavior, such as the frontal lobe, while increasing levels of neurotransmitters associated with reward and excitability, such as dopamine and cortisol."
Glatt isn't the only one who's found success in the gamification fitness. The virtual reality (VR) fitness industry is steadily booming—the global VR fitness game market was valued at $111 million in 2022, and it's projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 39.8 percent from 2023 to 2029 according to an HTF Market Report. Virtual fitness is not just hopping on a Peloton bike or following a guided workout on an app—fitness can mean queuing up a workout on your VR headset, something that appeals to a broader net of people who may not resonate with other workout formats.
VR is just one of the latest popular examples of the gamification of fitness, BTW, but it's far from the only one. Fitness video games like Ring Fit on Nintendo Switch and the Zwift app, which turns at-home spin workoutsf into a game, are two more.
What is exergaming, exactly?
According to Glatt, true gamification of fitness (aka exergaming) means your workout has to provide some type of points or score system and have a goal-oriented outcome which, overall, helps drive motivation while you’re being physically active. "In addition to this external focus on a goal, an individual can have what is called 'enhanced expectancies,' which means they expect they can get better, outperform their prior performance, or achieve a specific goal,” says Glatt.
My sister is a nurse who works night shift at the hospital and has trouble squeezing workouts into her hectic schedule. When she got a Meta Quest 2 VR Headset she discovered the Supernatural VR fitness game that offers boxing and dance-like workouts that are music driven.
"It made me look forward to working out because it's at my house and convenient for my schedule," she says. "You get to immerse yourself in cool scenery all over the world, the music is good, and you get to pick what you want to listen to." My sister also points out that the trainers in the game are particularly positive and motivating, which is much needed after working a 12-plus-hour-long shift at a hospital.
The benefits of gamifying fitness for your brain and body
It takes time to see gains when it comes to exercising, and that can make it hard to get motivated to work out, according to Haley Perlus, PhD, a sports and performance psychology expert. "When we work out once, there is no instant physical benefit we can gauge, and when the reward isn't instant, it's hard to connect the action and form a good habit,” she says. "Fitness gamification changes that by providing instant gratification through a daily reward system that helps to make [working out] a fun habit."
A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology looked at a small group of 55 people who's weekly exercise time fell short of the 150 minutes recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) in their physical activity guidelines for American adults. Some participants were assigned to group exercise classes, and some were assigned to exergaming. Although the class participants worked out harder than the exergamers, the study found that the exergamers reported having more fun. And since enjoyment is one of the primary objectives of exercise, according to the FITTE principle trainers use to program workouts, the findings, although from a small study, point to the potential for exergaming to be an alternative form of physical activity for those that don't enjoy going to a gym or traditional workout classes.
Laura Flynn Endres is a personal trainer who created an online fitness game, Get Fit Done, because she says it was difficult to keep her clients motivated week after week. "The best fitness program has a lot of repetition, and the first few weeks of a new program are the hardest. Gamifying it provides a fun distraction, improves compliance, and is 'peer pressure done right,' " she says. The online fitness game, in which members earn points for their team through meeting certain goals, also creates a team dynamic which Endres says helps many people who don't want to let others down. "Generally, accountability is far more important than we realize. Again, you’ll show up more consistently for others than you will for yourself," she adds.
Glatt adds that the gamification of fitness offers unique health benefits in addition to helping you be more consistent with your workouts. "The exergaming literature, mostly on older adults, shows that exergaming has the potential to improve cognition, brain function, mood, and physical functioning," says Glatt, though, he adds that unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of clear evidence around the ways exergaming works in the brain.
Are there downsides to the gamification of fitness?
The gamification of fitness may sound like, well, all fun and games, but some criticize its potential downsides, including the risk of becoming overly competitive or too driven by data. Like with any type of fitness tracking, it’s possible to develop an unhealthy relationship with your devices.
Typically with exergaming you have a quantified element—for example, tracking steps, calories, miles, and on. A 2016 journal article found that quantification of activity reduces enjoyment, and may cause people to become disengaged or less motivated as a result.
"There are always those with an obsessive nature,” says Dr. Perlus. “This can occur using a simple wristwatch, stopwatch, or simply by someone counting reps. If someone recognizes that they fixate on numbers and rewards, they may want to speak with a trainer or psychologist if they become too engaged in gamification.”
Even with these potential downsides, exergaming is carving out a new exercise niche and engaging people who did'nt like to workout before—and getting more people to exercise while having fun is no small feat. And by in large, with guardrails and self-awareness, the gamification of fitness has the potential to improve the workout experience for those who lack motivation to exercise. As such, it may be a good introductory exercise for those who aren't already active since it offers a higher level of engagement than working out on your own—with lower overhead costs than hiring a personal trainer or joining a gym or studio, Dr. Perlus points out. "Gamification makes fitness customizable, personal, private and motivating," she says.
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