Want to Improve Fitness? Make it a Game

From studying, to exercising, to cleaning up, and yes, fitness – how do you make yourself do something that you don’t want to do? Make it a game! Even Mary Poppins tells us that “in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun,” and apps like Streaks are popping up all over the place to make a game out of any mundane activity. But does it work?

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University set out to test the theory that participants could be incentivized to increase their physical activity through the gamification of exercise. All participants in the study wore step counters to measure their daily activity and received feedback each day on their achievements. However, those in the intervention group were given the opportunity to earn points and progress through reward levels as they increased their physical activity.


Image: Fitbit by Hamaza Butt / CC by 2.0

The designers of the study took special care to incorporate principles from behavioral economics to augment social incentives and overcome participation barriers. Studies have shown that people tend to be more motivated to avoid losses, and that good habits are better sustained with variable reinforcement. Participants were enrolled with their entire families, and asked to sign a commitment pledge to do their best during the trial. Each week the family was awarded 70 points, and each day one family member was randomly selected to represent the whole family. If that family member met his goal, the family kept all their points. If not, 10 points were lost for the day. Families who had more than 50 points at the end of the week would move up a level.


Image: levels by Jurgen Appelo / CC by 2.0

This study found that the game cohort significantly increased their activity during the intervention period when compared to the non-game group, by a rate of almost 1 mile per day. The authors suggest that gamification is a promising way to improve health outcomes by incentivizing and rewarding particular outcomes – even if it’s just to earn a coffee mug.

Featured Image: Hopscotch by atalou / CC by-ND 2.0

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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.