Unlocking Fitness Gains Through Gamification
New apps and services with video game-like elements can motivate you to get in shape. But are they enough to reach your fitness goals? And how do you get started?
We’re climbing up a steep hill that hits a 10 percent gradient. As we finish the hill and ride through the gate of the castle, the sprint for the finish line is on. I manage to pick off a few riders on the ascent, and I’m in 56th place. One mile to go.
Luckily for me, it’s a hilltop finish. My favorite. I’m not so good going downhill, so I like it when races finish on a climb.
Up ahead, the road passes under a historic aqueduct. I can see the finish line just beyond it. My heart rate pushes toward its peak.
I’m putting out as much power as I can on the climb, but I’m tired. As we crest the hill, one rider blows past me, with a few others following in the draft. I can’t quite hang on to my place, and I finish 62nd out of 445 riders.
This is the final stage of the “Tour de Zwift,” a virtual reality cycling game. The Zwift app allows you to connect your bicycle (via a “smart” trainer or a “smart” indoor bike) to Zwift’s virtual environments, riding with other people from around the world.
There are group rides, races and training programs, and you can ride in fantasy worlds like “Watopia” and “Makuri Islands,” or on courses based on real-world locales like London, Paris or Scotland. As your progress through the game, you earn points, gain badges and unlock equipment, like new bicycles and clothing. And of course, you can share likes with your fellow riders, known in the game as “ride ons.”
What is Gamification?
Zwift is on the leading edge of the exercise gamification—the addition of gamelike-elements to a product or service. Many of these elements are derived from video games.
Historically, you can trace the concept back to pinball and arcade games, which introduced “high scores.” Gamification really took off around 2002, with Microsoft’s online gaming platform Xbox Live. The new service introduced the “Gamerscore,” which allowed gamers to compete with each other on leaderboards and unlock achievements.
If you’re not familiar with the term “gamification,” you’re probably still familiar with it in practice. Do you use the Starbucks app to earn “stars” and unlock rewards? Are you constantly checking to see how many profile views you’ve got on LinkedIn? Or, are you tracking your fitness progress and earning achievements in one of the numerous fitness apps available on your smartphone? Gamification is everywhere.
With the explosion of smart devices, fitness is becoming increasingly gamified. While companies using gamification want to hook you on their products and services, there’s an upside: gamification can serve as a powerful motivator to help you get fit.
Why Does Gamification Work So Well?
Ever done one of those walking challenges where you team up with friends or colleagues to walk for a cause or as a way to get in shape? They serve as a great example of the power of competition through gamification. One study showed that walking challenges increased participants’ physical activity by 23 percent over the course of the challenge, even for people that were previously inactive.
But it’s not just the competitive aspect of gamification that makes it so appealing—it’s the coupling of competition with social interaction. In a recent qualitative study focused on Zwift, users noted competition and social interaction as top motivating factors for staying on the service. A 2015 study on the fitness application “Fitocracy” showed use of the service increased both physical activity and enjoyment of exercise:
In particular, participants reported liking the ability to follow other Fitocracy users to track their progress for either inspiration or competition. One sentiment shared by a participant was that “the leveling system and social aspect motivates me and push me to do more exercise.” In other words, the gamification features enhanced participants’ enjoyment and the social support from other users motivated them to engage in exercise frequently.
Other studies have shown similar results, and it’s notable that the quality of interactions with other users on these services is an an important differentiating factor. In other words, just getting “likes” on a fitness app might not be motivating in and of itself. I think that’s why so many people like Zwift: it fully immerses you in an interactive world with other people from around the world. You aren’t just giving people “ride ons.” You can chat with them, create meetups and even have real time, realistic competitions.
While gamified apps and services can be a powerful motivator, they aren’t the only way to achieve your fitness goals. As I’ve written previously, it’s important to reflect on your internal motivation for staying fit, which is central to achieving your fitness goals over the long term.
How to Start With Fitness Gamification
I’m currently cycling-centric when it comes to my fitness gamification. In addition to Zwift, my wife and I also use a virtual-reality cycling app called Rouvy, which allows us to ride real cycling routes from across the world captured in augmented reality video. The amazing thing about both apps is that they control the resistance on your bike trainer or smart bike. Want to climb up Mount Ventoux in France? You can, but it’ll take you a while, and it will feel like a real climb. All 4,596 feet of it.
I’m also a heavy Strava user, like many cyclists. The app serves as social network for active people, and can be used for running and other sports, too. It features leaderboards for segments, challenges and badges to unlock.
There are numerous services like this for runners that include social features, such as Nike Run Club and MapMyRun, whichuses and gives high marks. I also recently read about a new running app called Run An Empire, which allows you to "conquer territory" in your neighborhood, making it the equivalent of a running strategy game.
If you haven’t tried gamifiying your fitness, now’s a great time to start. As “smart” fitness technology continues to get more sophisticated, your experiences on gamified services will improve. Whatever your fitness routine, there’s probably an app for it. And if there’s not? There will be soon.