Gamification in fitness, what is it?

spin bike

There’s been a small but growing revolution in fitness recently. You might have seen it pop up in your group exercise classes, your wearable technology and health insurance. I’m talking about gamification.


Gamification. It’s a way of applying game-like concepts to other areas. Remember how addictive Candy Crush was? Well, gamification plays on the same stuff – like point scoring and friendly competition with others.

It’s been doing the rounds for a fair while but has really taken on in the health and fitness industry. Some examples of it taking place here in the UK include the Vitality health insurance app, the Kobox Games that run on social media every week, Virgin Active’s The Pack class and the Zombies! Run! app.

zombies run

But does it work?

First things first, gamification works by tapping into the concepts that make video games so addictive. Namely, it attempts to elicit a reward response within our brains, thereby releasing the pleasure hormone dopamine.

It also taps into our competitive side, especially in a class like The Pack and the Kobox Games. A bit of friendly competition never hurt anyone, right?

Then there’s the narrative, which can help distract you or motivate you to actually begin running, stay active or push yourself further.

No one size fits all

Gamification isn’t a magic bullet that’s going to get you off the couch and into a fitness class – but it can provide that extra push.

But it doesn’t work for all of us. I’ve got a naturally competitive edge that works particularly well with gamification, but even I stopped interacting with some of the apps and other gamified classes once the initial novelty wore off. In particular, I began using the Vitality app approximately one year ago. The points-based system rewards you for certain levels of activity and initially, it was fun to try to beat all my co-workers who were on the same Vitality scheme. However, now I’ve stopped working there I have no reason to gain points except to redeem against cinema trips and a free Starbucks – and I get enough points for that within two days of the week beginning.

Likewise, in The Pack, you work in a team to beat two other teams. I get the idea behind this, to make it an equal playing field and so stronger riders make up for weaker ones. But in practice, it didn’t always work. The stronger riders teamed up because they were often the regulars, and the less confident riders nearly always sat near the door – which made up one of the teams. So there was always a huge disparity between the different teams competing. Additionally, it is one thing for stronger riders to make up for weaker ones, but often there were people attending who didn’t actually want to take part in the team rides. They would continue at a leisurely pace when the rest of us were busting a gut trying to out-sprint the other teams.

So gamification isn’t exactly perfect. But it can work in some situations. In any case, if it’s enough to convince you to get fit and to keep you motivated long enough for a class or activity to become a habit, then perhaps it’s already done its job. The rest, you might say, is just bonus points.

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