If you're of a certain age, you'll remember the first time you broke a sweat playing a video game, and not because your brother was wrestling you for the controller. Instead, you'd become the avatar in Nintendo's Wii Sports, returning tennis serves or swinging a virtual golf club. Or maybe you were practicing your dance moves to Konami's Dance Dance Revolution.
First-generation exercise games, sometimes called “exergames,” were meant to encourage increasingly sedentary children and teens to exercise using the very screens keeping them glued to the couch. They also turned out to be fun and quickly became popular with audiences of all ages.
Now, game developers, fitness manufacturers, and app designers are eager to take advantage of an at-home fitness market expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.8 percent from 2021 to 2027, according to Allied Market Research.
As a result, the next generation of exergames promises to level up your workout with 3D graphics, rich storylines, and challenging obstacles that will make you forget you’re exercising in the first place.
Next-Level Fitness Cycling Games
Set to launch in December, a “game-changing'' smart bike called Capti, manufactured by Expresso Fitness, uses Unreal Engine from Epic Games to provide a video game experience like Fortnite and other popular virtual adventures. The first-of-its-kind stationary bike can transform from one with fixed handlebars and flywheel to a bike with steering, virtual shifting, terrain-adapted resistance, and a free flywheel to mirror what it’s like to ride outdoors. Riders can take studio classes, virtual training rides, and explore one of three adventure games.
“Our partnership with Epic Games gives us access to a marketplace of assets and capabilities within the engine, along with a network of more than seven and a half million developers,” says Jeff Veldhuizen, CEO at Capti. “Our vision is to power fitness in the metaverse.”
“For example, a future iteration of our virtual fitness platform could allow riders to earn V-bucks to spend in a virtual Nike store where they outfit their avatar after unlocking certain levels or completing a set of challenges. You could then bring your avatar back and forth through all sorts of virtual worlds.”
Anyone 4' 11" and taller can ride the bike, making it an option for the entire family. The bike will launch at an introductory price of $2,495 and later retail for $3,495, with a $34 monthly subscription that covers up to 10 family members.
Peloton also plans to dive head-first into the gaming world when it launches a new game called Lanebreak early next year. The Peloton fitness platform is already heavily rooted in gamification concepts, including leaderboards, high fives, virtual trophies, and ribbons for completing challenges. “But this is our first true game that takes advantage of real-time visualizations and scoring systems to reward users for behavior and also create fun, interesting fitness gaming moments along the way,” says Bud Intonato, vice president of product design at Peloton.
“We believe there’s something powerful in the immersive state. You can get into a game and forget what you’re doing to accomplish some other abstract goal,” says Intonato. “We’re also big fans of the gaming space, and we’re excited about anything that gets more folks working out,” he says.
Fitness From a Console
It’s no surprise Nintendo is a leading player in the exergame market. They have deep roots in the field, with some of the earliest games designed to get people to exercise. The company launched Ring Fit Adventure for the Nintendo Switch in 2019, and sales topped 11.26 million units in August 2021, making it one of the Switch’s best-selling games. Nintendo also launched Fitness Boxing 2 Rhythm and Exercise in late 2020.
Ring Fit Adventure comes with a “Ring-Con” controller, which you slot a Switch Joy-Con controller into, and a leg strap (for the same purpose). The Ring-Con resistance ring measures and tracks your movements, and is used for some of the challenges in the game. You can choose from adventure mode, quick play, and custom workouts meant to get your heart pumping. And mini-games offer short bursts of physical activity for those with limited time. Fitness Boxing 2 also provides a full-body workout with rewards for completing achievements that you can spend on in-game items. The Switch retails for $299.99 and up (the new OLED model retails for $350), Ring Fit Adventure is $79.99, and Fitness Boxing 2 is $49.99.
Also, Fit XR from Oculus by Meta (aka Facebook) provides a virtual reality experience where you can box, complete high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, and dance with up to six friends in real time. New workouts hosted by professional fitness instructors are released daily.
I’ll admit to spying on my son while he boxes his best friend (who is playing from his house) and laughing as he throws punches into thin air. There’s no question he’s working up a sweat, and the best part is he doesn’t realize he’s exercising because he’s having so much fun.
Membership to the Fit XR app is $9.99 per month, and Oculus headsets start at $299 and up.
Fitness Gaming From Trackers and Apps
Released in 2016, Pokémon Go got thousands of kids and adults out of the house and moving around outdoors. The free app isn’t meant to be a workout, but to play you walk around looking for and collecting Pokémon characters, which increases your physical activity. The game remains immensely popular, with more than 1 billion lifetime downloads and real-world events to keep players engaged.
Additional apps like Zombies, Run! and Zwift offer rich virtual worlds for running and biking, respectively, taking you on adventurous missions and guiding you through various levels of difficulty. Zombies, Run! requires a pair of running shoes, a smartphone, and $2.99 per month after a free trial. To use Zwift, you’ll need a stationary bike, trainer, and device to run the app, which costs $15 per month after a free trial.
Fitness trackers and their corresponding apps, like Garmin, Apple Watch, and Fitbit, also provide gamified incentives to meet step goals or calories burned. You’ll earn trophies and awards as you reach your targets, and you can share your goals with friends to encourage each other and build community (or compete with them to dominate leaderboards, whichever you prefer).
Tips to Turn Exergames Into a Fitness Habit
Here’s how to leverage exergames and gamification to go from low to no motivation to someone who exercises regularly.
Start where you’re at and choose a goal suitable to your baseline. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people did best when choosing their own goal and not one set by a program or trainer. “You have to feel like you have some skin in the game, and choosing your plan helps you feel more invested,” says Mitesh Patel, vice president for clinical transformation and national lead for behavioral insights at Ascension Health, and lead author of the study.
It could be as simple as raising your daily step count by 10 percent or committing to three 30-minute sessions (or exergames) per week. “We also found it’s best to be flexible when figuring out a day and time to exercise. Those who were more rigid ended up skipping their workout altogether when a child was sick, or a work meeting came up. Those who were flexible moved their workout to another time and stuck with it,” says Patel. Plus, at-home options are great because you can fit them in at a time that works best for you.
Take advantage of the reward systems and immediate feedback of gamified programs. “Whether it’s earning coins, swag, or shout-outs from instructors, we know that beginners are motivated by external rewards,” says licensed psychologist Lisa Lewis. “Eventually, your motivation will change from wanting accolades and incentives to exercising because of how it makes you feel, but you have to get over the initial hump.”
When I first started riding the Peloton, I couldn’t wait to get to 100 rides because I’d get a free Peloton T-shirt. Now that I’ve completed almost 500 rides, I no longer need the promise of a prize to keep going.
Engage in the social connectedness these games offer. “Anything that connects you to other human beings with similar goals, interests, and backgrounds helps meet your basic physiological need of relatedness (feeling supported and cared for),” says Lewis. Whether you’re working out virtually with friends or family or you’re competing against someone your age and capability on a leaderboard, the feeling of community will keep you coming back.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. A friend who also works from home and I text each other in the evenings with our step count. It keeps us motivated to get up and walk around when we’d otherwise sit most of the day.
Stay away from social comparisons that aren’t healthy. “If you’re trying to get as many friends as possible or views on your workout, you’re leaving actual human connection and relatedness behind and trading it for an unhealthy addiction,” warns Lewis. It’s tempting to share your workout on social media and look for validation from friends and strangers. But you can end up anxious and depressed when you’re wondering how many people liked your workout or compare yourself to friends who have more time to work out, or who do more than you do. Look for programs that allow you to turn those features off or ignore them altogether when you don’t use them.
Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, leaving the reality of deadlines and obligations behind while moving your body can have a powerful effect on your mood and well-being. Perhaps it’s time to choose an adventure and get moving.
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