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How to gamify your exercise to make it more enjoyable

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

You might not realize it, but the way we exercise is becoming more like playing a game. An Apple Watch rewards you with badges for hitting milestones. Peloton ranks you among others, encouraging competition. Workout apps like Strava have a social media component connecting you to fellow athletes. All of these are examples of what researchers call gamification - making something tedious feel more like play. Earlier this year for NPR's Life Kit, our producer, Vincent Acovino, set out to explain how you could gamify your exercise goals and have fun while working out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

VINCENT ACOVINO: I'll always remember watching people play Dance Dance Revolution at the arcade back in my hometown. The game simulates a dance routine by having you step on colored arrows to the beat of different songs. It's super physical because you're actually moving your whole body to play the game. And at the more difficult levels, players are moving at speeds that don't seem possible. There's a similar game developed in Korea called Pump It Up, and you can find it at a lot of arcades throughout the U.S. now. And some folks who play it consider it to be a fundamental part of their exercise routine.

MICHAEL GARCIA: It started out, you know, like, oh, I'm going to do, like, an hour or two hours. This last weekend I wasn't doing anything, so I made a challenge. I stayed here Friday for six hours, and Saturday I stayed here for eight hours. That was really fun. I even brought a little pack lunch with me just so I can keep going. And it's mostly just for the workout.

ACOVINO: Michael Garcia has been playing Pump It Up since last year. And as you can tell by the fact that he spends eight hours at the arcade, he really likes playing it, and he likes the workout that it gives him, too. And that leads me to my first takeaway. Video games are all about fun. Exercise should be fun, too. So make sure you're having a good time doing it.

GARCIA: If I don't want to go to the gym, it's definitely good to just come play Pump 'cause it's not a chore at all. It's fun to just play it.

ACOVINO: The game keeps track of his high scores, and the better he gets, the game lets him know. It's satisfying in the same way it feels good to have your fitness watch tell you you've worked out seven days in a row or walked more this month than last month. That's how Michael feels seeing his scores climb in Pump It Up.

GARCIA: Now, instead of, like, being happy that, oh, I'm losing weight or, oh, I'm having fun with the game, I'm just enjoying just seeing the progress. And that's a good motivator.

ACOVINO: And that's our second gamification takeaway - create a goal. And just like video games track your progress, find a way to do that with your physical activity.

MITESH PATEL: Do you need a wearable to give you your heart rate and all of these other metrics? Do you just need your phone to tell you the number of steps? Or can you just jot down every day, hey, did I spend 30 to 45 minutes exercising today? That might be enough for most people.

ACOVINO: That's Dr. Mitesh Patel, the national lead for behavioral insights at Ascension. He studies gamification and exercise. And in a recent trial, he tracked the step count of 500 employees from a single company. The employees were separated into different groups. Some of those groups were gamified with things like points, badges and social systems. And some weren't. And what he found was that over the course of six months...

PATEL: The average person in the competition and gamified arm walked about 100 miles more than the average person in the control arm.

ACOVINO: Now that is worth repeating. Those who were in groups that used gamification to promote exercise walked 100 miles more than those who weren't. That's not an insignificant number. And even though you probably don't have access to a similar, well-controlled clinical trial that's tracking your steps and activity for you, Mitesh says that doesn't matter. As long as you have a sense of where you are and where you want to go, you are on the path to gamification.

PATEL: In order for you to get started, you have to really be tracking your behavior. Whatever it is your goal is whether it's changing activity levels, losing weight or something else, if you're not tracking how you're doing, then it's going to be hard for you to change that behavior. So Step 1 is if it's activity levels or something that's easy, use your smartphone. But even if it's as simple as keeping a log...

ACOVINO: So once you've got your goal and you're tracking your progress towards that goal, the next step is figuring out how you're going to get there. And to do that, Mitesh says it's helpful to know what kind of gamification works for you. So our next takeaway is - know what kind of gamer you are and apply that to your exercise. Mitesh calls this preference a behavioral phenotype and says people typically respond to either competition, support or collaboration. And a whole bunch of factors determine which of these approaches can best encourage us to work out.

PATEL: What we found from the research is that whether you want to use collaboration, support or competition also depends on who's the other person. If the other person is someone you don't know, competition has tended to work better because you kind of have more stake in it for yourself.

ACOVINO: Whereas if you work out with someone closer to you, like a friend or family member...

PATEL: Then collaboration or support works really well because this is someone you trust.

ACOVINO: Now, if you're a competitive type, you might be drawn to apps that have leaderboards or rankings. Or maybe you can even put together a fitness challenge with a small group of your friends or your colleagues.

PATEL: And then many people don't know this, but their insurance program or their workplace wellness program actually offers gamified experiences to a large number of people who just don't engage in them. So I would, you know, look towards your insurance program or your workplace wellness program to see if there's something where you can connect your phone to the program and then start receiving feedback or points towards either virtual or real rewards.

ACOVINO: And if you're a collaborative or supportive type, maybe bring your close friend or your family member to the gym with you to help hold each other accountable. No matter what kind of socializing you do, that social component is a big part of the whole process. Be it online, in person or both, other people can be a huge motivator. Michael Garcia told me something similar when we were at the arcade. When he moved to Maryland last year, he was kind of on his own.

GARCIA: I had no friends for a while. And just being here and playing on a busy day, you'll run into some young adults who are just going around. And then they'll see you playing, and they're like, wow, you're really good, dah, dah, dah, dah (ph). And I've made so many friends just being like, you want to try it? And their friend will hype them up to play. And, you know, you cheer them on and then boom, you got a friend.

ACOVINO: Now he's part of a whole group of Pump It Up players who talk on the social media app Discord. They meet up at arcades throughout Maryland and Virginia, and Michael knows that community is the big reason that he's kept at it.

GARCIA: All the time, everybody's cheering each other on like, yeah, yeah, like, you can do it. Finish it off. Or we'll jump on and help each other. And it's really good because if I didn't have the community, I would not keep playing.

ACOVINO: I'll close with one final takeaway. Even if it's not your thing, you could always try exercising with video games, and you don't need an expensive video game console to do that. There are plenty of games that you can just download right on your phone, like Pokemon GO, which, despite being a few years old, still has an active player base. And it might be a good way to get your friend to just join you on a walk. And you could always spend a few dollars at your local arcade, where Michael and I got a great workout just the other day.

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ACOVINO: All right. So we just hopped off.

GARCIA: Yes.

ACOVINO: Mike is sweating a bit. I'm sweating a bit. But also, I did about maybe one-twentieth of the work.

GARCIA: Yeah.

ACOVINO: So yeah. How are you feeling? Like, what - was it a good workout?

GARCIA: Yeah, I'm feeling good. I'm about actually to go to the gym right after this, so this is a good start. I'll still do cardio, but it was really good to get the blood going 'cause I, like, just woke up, like, three hours ago, so...

ACOVINO: This is more like the fun treadmill.

GARCIA: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly.

MCCAMMON: That was Vincent Acovino reporting for NPR's Life Kit. And if you're looking to make some changes next year, check out Life Kit's Resolution Planner. The tool helps you mix and match over 40 ideas for New Year's resolutions, along with tips to help you start 2023 off right. You can find that at npr.org/newyears. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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