Health

Gamification Apps Make Fitness Fun

Shawn Krest Writer, Movable Media

New apps use zombies, aliens and superheroes to make exercise more entertaining.

From tossing around the football to jumping rope, the National Football League’s Play 60 initiative sought to mitigate America’s child obesity problem by getting kids to move for an hour every day. Now, technology offers an innovative way to get people of all ages off the couch. Instead of focusing on changing behavior, a goal that’s proven difficult to accomplish, new fitness apps look to alter the activity.

Fitness trackers are really useful for keeping tabs on activity and biorhythms, but are they doing enough to keep people on the right path to lasting health? That question is diving development of new apps that turning fitness trackers into action games.

“[Fitness trackers] encourage you to walk or run more, but they don’t actually change the exercise itself,” said Adrian Hon, CEO of fitness app company Six to Start.

“What we’re trying to do is make the act of exercise more exciting.”

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Hon’s company developed an app that tracks a person’s running and uses it as an element of the plot in a story. Runners aren’t just getting fit with Hon’s app—as a character in the story, they’re running for their lives.

With respect to exercise, gamification means using standard game-play characteristics—scoring points, defeating monsters, reaping rewards—and applying them to fitness activities like running or lifting weights. This new generation of apps and wearable technology are enabling all forms of exercise to be turned into games.

Cutting the Tether

The gamification of exercise began long before people started using fitness apps. Games like Dance Dance Revolution, and the Wii Fit got gamers off the couch and moving, with more than 20 million units sold worldwide. These games were immensely popular, not only because they got people to exercise, but because they were fun to play. It was worth it to leave the couch and sweat a little.

Those early fitness games, however, still required a player to be in front of the television or gaming system. Apps and wearable technology have helped solve this problem by freeing people to exercise outdoors or on-the-go.

Run like Someone’s Chasing You

Running is the most popular form of exercise, but compared to dancing and playing sports, it suffers on the fun quotient.

“When you jog on the treadmill, it’s still boring, painful, tedious,” Hon said. “A lot of running apps help you monitor your performance—how fast, how far—but they don’t necessarily make you more excited about running.”

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Six to Start found a way to do just that. Its first app was based on a simple truth about human beings: People will run to escape the zombie apocalypse.

Zombies, Run! quickly became the world’s best-selling fitness app. Like Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Fit, Zombies, Run! works because it’s a game first.

“We don’t sell it as a way to make you fitter,” Hon said. “It’s a way to make running more interesting.”

The app features a well-written, intricately developed narrative about a town attempting to survive the rise of the zombies. Users are given missions, such as locating medical supplies for their band of survivors or simply outrunning the zombie hoard.

Runners listen to the story through their earbuds, with the app tracking their movements to help pace the narrative. The app can be used with Apple Watch, and older versions synch with RunKeeper. Currently, the app doesn’t share data with other fitness devices and wearables. Although, obviously, runners can use both products at the same time.

Zombies, Run! is in its fifth season—like a television show, a new season comes out each year and each season features new storylines and new missions to keep players running. People are clearly responding to the app: In October 2015, it topped the 2 million download mark.

There are several other apps with similar concepts, turning a simple jog into a run for one’s life.

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Six to Start has added two other games to its strong debut app. The Walk was developed in conjunction with the UK’s Department of Health and asks users to walk the length of Great Britain to help stop a bombing. Superhero Workout has players do aerobic and core-building exercises to help defend earth against an alien attack.

Competitors have also brought narrative fitness apps to the marketplace. Battlesuit Runner has users running from aliens. Changes in running speed allow users to make plot decisions.

“If you want to rescue the hostages, slow down for a few seconds,” the app prompts. “If you prefer to pursue the retreating hostiles instead, speed up for a few seconds.”

Beautiful Music Together

If a good story isn’t enough to get someone to exercise, maybe the right song will do the trick. Many of the narrative games including Run, Zombies! realize the importance of the right soundtrack and encourage users to incorporate music from their mobile devices into the game.

Other apps rely even more heavily on music. Sworkit, which was funded on an episode of Shark Tank, calls music the “secret ingredient” to sticking with a workout regimen. Studies have shown the powerful link between music and exercise performance. The app even replaced a points-based fitness product that allowed users to earn real-world discounts, as music was found to be a more powerful motivator than greed.

Sworkit also includes video clips and guides users through short personalized circuit-training workouts.

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“Customization is also key,” said Leanna Olbinsky, a community manager for Sworkit. “You need to make your workout your own. Most people don’t like someone telling them exactly what to do.”

This is likely the case for the more than 14 million people who have downloaded Sworkit, including Ivanka Trump.

Sworkit bills itself as a phone-based alternative to wearables and currently doesn’t synch with data from other products.

Going the Distance

Have these fitness apps succeeded in making exercise more fun in the long run, or are they simply a fad that will eventually find their place among all the other discarded fitness equipment that’s captured the public’s attention over the years?

Like a television show or graphic novel, narrative apps are only as good as their stories. If the plots are compelling and well-crafted, people may continue running along with them. But if the zombie and alien apps “jump the shark,” people may tune out.

The success of the apps, however, do seem to provide a blueprint for wearable devices. While Fitbit and similar devices have sold well, customers need more than just fitness data to keep them using the product and getting healthy.

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Research showed that fewer than 30 percent of Fitbit users continue using the product for a year. Meanwhile, over a three-year span, Zombies, Run has nearly a 20 percent retention rate.

Hon seems to think that the future lies with smart watches, rather than dedicated wearables. In addition to Apple Watch, his game will be compatible with Android Wear in the near future.

“I think people are losing their minds about wearables,” he told The Guardian, expressing skepticism that a wearable would have enough processing power to provide the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional story or game that would be required to capture—and keep—the public’s attention for the long term.

Of course, as wearable hardware continues to advance, the idea of a narrative fitness game interacting with wearable data isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Technology continues to find new ways to inspire people’s imaginations, and fitness apps will continue to transform exercise from a chore into something that’s exciting and fun.

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