The Gamification of Fitness

Have you ever played the game Flappy Bird on your phone? Even if you’re not one of the fifty million people who have recently downloaded it, you probably know how addictive these sorts of games can be.

What if I told you that the same principle that makes these games insanely addictive could help you lose weight, build muscle, and live a healthier life? It’s called “gamification” and it has the potential to transform fitness.

Hack Your Brain

Video-game designers don’t create successful games by accident — they’ve developed a set of techniques that allow them to “hack into our brains” and create games that are quite literally addictive.

There are three basic parts to an addictive game:

  1. Rules that are easy to understand.
  2. Challenges that are difficult but not impossible.
  3. Frequent feedback and rewards.

Games designed with these principles allow us to feel successful, causing the brain to release pleasuring-inducing chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin as a reward. Even when we fail at some level of game, starting over with a new chance to succeed is just a button-click away, and often irresistible.

Gaming Fitness

Traditionally, it’s been hard to apply these principles to weight loss and fitness. While a goal like losing 20 pounds might sound simple, figuring out all the changes in diet and exercise needed to get there (the “rules”) is difficult; sticking with the plan over time (the “challenge”) is even harder; and achieving your goal (“feedback & reward”) only happens once you get to the end of your plan, months later.

It’s no wonder our brains come up with great excuses to give up on our regimens. Losing weight is not a very good game!

With the advent of technology, including smartphones and the Internet of Things, things are starting to change. Activity trackers like FitBit, Withings, and the Jawbone UP keep track of every step you take towards a clear daily goal of 10,000 steps. As you get closer and closer, these devices light up. And they track your results from day to day so that you can compete for bigger goals such as streaks of successful days. Simply tracking calories or exercises in an app like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt can also be a daily reward.

The Next Level

At Koko, we’ve taken the gamification of weight loss and fitness to a new place. We start by turning each exercise of a strength-training workout into a game. The Koko System has a screen with a line that tracks your motion, displaying how quickly you’re actually raising or lowering the weight. There’s also a “perfect pace” bar that shows the ideal speed for each rep, both on the way up and on the way down.

The rules are simple: go too fast or slow and your line moves out of the “perfect pace” bar, turning yellow. There’s feedback after every exercise set: a score that shows how often you were off pace. And at the end of the workout, you’re rewarded an overall score based on how well you did following recommended pace, weight and reps. The ultimate  goal is a “perfect workout” of 1,000 points.

Our members tell us this turns exercise into an addictive game. By shifting their attention away from how heavy the weights are to form and pace, they not only get a better workout, it goes by more quickly. They tell us they are transported from the gym into the game, which keeps them focused, engaged and interested…and wanting to come back.

And as you progress day-by-day through your own custom workout program, the system automatically increases the difficulty by changing exercises, repetitions, pace and weight. This keep each workout interesting and challenging, but also doable. You wind up working harder than you otherwise would to maximize results in the shortest amount of time.

How You Stack Up

Workout results are securely stored in the cloud where you track your progress on a personal dashboard. You can watch your body composition improve, keep track of how much stronger you are, and even check out the total number of calories you’ve burned over time. For those who enjoy a little friendly competition for extra motivation, there’s a leaderboard in each club that celebrates notable recent scores.

One member tells us: “I go because all the game stuff has me completely hooked. And, by the way, I am in better shape than I have ever been in my adult life.”

Next time you’re in line at the post office, passing time playing your favorite mobile game, imagine that your exercise rituals were just as fun. Goodbye, Flappy Bird. Hello, Fitness!

Michael Wood, CSCS
Chief Fitness Officer, Koko FitClub


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About Michael Wood, Chief Fitness Officer
Michael Wood, CSCS, is Chief Fitness Officer at Koko FitClub, driving the development of integrated strength and cardio training and nutrition programs for Koko members nationwide. A nationally acclaimed fitness expert, Michael has conducted research as a Senior Exercise Physiologist at the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and has lectured at Boston University and the University of Connecticut. He has been named Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” Personal Trainer, and made the Men’s Journal “Dream Team” list of the nine best trainers in the U.S. Michael and his family live in North Attleboro, MA.

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