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NPR Life Kit: How To Gamify Your Exercise To Make It More Enjoyable

From NPR Life Kit: 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… Listen to the episode at NPR Life Kit.