If you think gamification isn’t for you, you might be surprised to know you’re probably already using it. The simple act of “closing the rings” on your Apple Watch, beating the number of steps you did yesterday or comparing times with friends on Strava are all forms of gamification or “connected fitness”.
Even more mind-blowing? This space is predicted to be worth $7.7 billion by 2025 and it’s focused on switching up your usual lounge room workouts.
What exactly is gamification?
Glad you asked. It’s based on the idea of “gaming”, as in featuring an interactive element that creates a game or challenge for the user. The aim? To make breaking a sweat more fun and bring out our competitive natures.
One of the original players in this space? Cult favourite Peloton, which has just launched in Australia. The at-home exercise bike, treadmill and app in one uses gamified elements to track your score against everyone else doing the same workout. It’s proven so popular that there are now 5.4 million members globally, with more than 35 dedicated Peloton instructors. Then, there’s the Mirror. Sure, you can hang this full-length baby on a wall at home, but when switched on, it actually combines a complex series of visual measurements with your data to transform into a personal trainer. Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Nina Dobrev and Kate Hudson are all fans. It’s not yet available in Oz, so just watch this space.
Meanwhile, home-grown success story Vitruvian has created the V-Form Trainer, an interactive platform featuring resistance workouts with weights. Not only can you take a “class” with a trainer, but you can also compete with friends while you do it. Plus, Vitruvian is about to launch an app that lets users do challenges and games as they work out.
This increasing reliance on technology in fitness (as well as other areas of our lives) is a natural development for us as humans, according to Dr Kieran Kennedy, a registered medical doctor and practising psychiatry registrar. “I think technology and gamification to some degree are just part of modern psychology,” he says. “Our brains are built to problem solve, to seek out solutions and better ways to do things. And that’s a really positive thing.” He adds that this kind of tech comes with obvious benefits. “If we have a virtual platform within our house that still allows us to exercise and have physical activity, that’s preferable to just coming home and sitting on the couch. Any form of movement is going to have some positive impacts on your physical and mental health.”
When it comes to the research, a 2015 study by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore found that gamification can improve our attitude towards working out, increase our exercise enjoyment and help to shape activity habits. A Queensland University of Technology review of 19 gamification studies also revealed that 59 per cent of the papers reported positive effects on the wellbeing of users (41 per cent had more mixed results). The approach could encourage people with type 2 diabetes to increase and stick with exercise, suggests 2021 research published in JAMA Network Open.
For Jon Gregory, founder of Vitruvian, the beauty of gamification lies in its ability to “bring a level of engagement with your fitness that you couldn’t have without it.” He believes it’s an “unstoppable force” in the fitness world, adding, “It’s one of the fundamental things about technology. It won’t always appeal to everyone, but for a certain group of people it’s really interesting.”
Playing It Safe
While there may well be physical plus points, it’s a good move to keep an eye on your mental wellbeing. “If a workout routine starts to feel like something that’s pushing and pressuring you, rather than something you’re getting a positive reaction from, that can be a bit of a red flag,” says Kennedy. For example, he adds, with some gamified fitness platforms, there’s an element of pressure with notifications to join, exercise, stand up, raise your heartbeat or beat a score, which could make some users feel anxious or stressed about meeting their targets.
“Remember that these screen-based or online exercise platforms don’t necessarily have the [beneficial] elements that more traditional forms of fitness can have for our mental health,” Kennedy says. “Research shows that if you exercise in a natural environment, there are added boosters for mental wellbeing. And for people who play sport or go to the gym, that may be some of the best social contact they have.”
So, how to embrace this new world and still find a healthy balance? Kennedy advises making the technology work for you and your lifestyle. And if you’re ever feeling pressured, simply take a break and go for a walk. Outside. With friends. Game on, indeed.