Reworking the Fitness Game

Reworking the Fitness Game


Ed Note: We’re initiating coverage today on the Gamification of Health, the most requested topic among our readers and a subject of extraordinary importance to us at Gamification.Co. Feel free to send us your article suggestions. – Gabe Zichermann

Full-service gyms are currently going through hard times in the US. According to a recent New York Times article, 45% of gym members quit during any given year and the 15% of Americans who currently belong to a gym is rapidly decreasing. The conclusion of the article is unmistakable: the industry has a problem with user engagement. There were a lot of attendees at January’s GSummit from companies eager to engage consumers around health and wellness – perhaps shifting gym management’s mindset from consumers to players (as we recommend in our Strategic Gamification Blueprint).

As fitness consultant Casey Conrad told Catherine Saint Louis of the New York Times, “There’s no question that the social element is a huge, huge piece to getting participation.” But this idea has taken a major hit of late. As any gym member can attest, a set of white iPod earphones is pretty much required equipment, making each user the central focus in a lonely iTunes commercial. Flat screen TVs have also served to separate users from what was once the biggest draw for gyms: community.

Other gyms, health clubs, yoga and martial arts facilities still stress the importance of community to encourage engagement. If you miss a session, others ask “where have you been?,” while still others may notice you’re doing well and cheer you on. While facilities like these outperform the median, they continue to depend on the serendipity of user interaction to drive their success. That is, community is spontaneous, mysterious and unstructured.  But not everyone is content to leave results to chance.

The FitBit is a single device that works with many platforms to create a virtual community. source:

Yifan Zhang and Geoff Oberhofer believe they will keep people going to full-service facilities with Gym-Pact. Their business adapts a model, first covered in the book Free by Chris Anderson, that describes selling memberships at drastically reduced prices and only charging users if they miss a session. The full month’s cost is then charged as a “motivational fee”. This tactic is essentially flawed, as getting overcharged for unused services is already a common complaint of gym-goers. By encouraging users through negative reinforcement, it associates even more negative emotions with the act of getting on a treadmill and does nothing to increase engagement.

WiiFit Plus
WiiFit expands upon the Wii's abilities and includes exercise routines. source:

On the other hand, many players are abandoning the now-solitary experience of brick and mortar gyms and joining communities of mostly solo exercise with social/online connection.  Players are purchasing programs and devices that motivate them to stay fit in a more gamified, online way such as the FitBit, Nike+, the WiiFit, and even Nintendo 3DS . The power of this type of positive motivation has been demonstrated in the developing field of positive psychology.

Others, such as Julie Price, previously Vice-President of Digital Products at Club One and Judy Shasek, Cofounder of Healthy Community Development are investigating ways to use games in order to get people to jump on treadmills or just simply get out and run. Julie is concentrating on how to eliminate the de-motivational aspects of working out. She describes her research:

“I was looking specifically at making fitness fun; so games and how you could create a gym made up of just games, where people would go and exercise… In a lot of the research they are finding that people’s rate of perceived exertion is low [in fitness games], but their heart rate is actually a lot higher [than] if they are doing other exercise, so they are getting a huge benefit, but they are not seeing it as work.”

By making the gym a more engaging experience, Julie is hoping help players by lowering the threshold and get over the inertia to begin exercising and then enjoy it once they have begun.

Full-service gyms, even in their heyday, only drew those users that were motivated to get into shape to begin with. Pioneers like Shasek are re-imagining the experience of fitness, bringing together entire communities through games in order to motivate players to exercise. By casting a wider net and encouraging existing communities to get involved, it helps those individuals who would have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

Even as gyms are losing users, players are finding new ways to lose weight and stay fit. With the encouragement and support of gamified community, rewards and engagement, perhaps the “Great Depression” in our national health can finally end. Gyms and other brick and mortar fitness enterprises still form an essential part of that recovery plan, but without gamification, their prospects seem increasingly dim.


Need help with behavioral science and gamification? Get in touch with our boutique consulting agency Dopamine.


  1. So why don’t they re-purpose some of those big screen TV’s, order a ton of Wii Fit, Sony Move, and Xbox Kinect devices and build classes around networked fit game play? Arrange regular competitive classes for certain games, local and across gym chain leaderboards, achievement unlocks, and virtual and real world prizes for participation. Integrate with some of those gamified programs mentioned in the article that already exist and you would have a pretty cool platform to build engagement. The gym hardware is getting better at providing feedback but I’m still waiting for a resistance training machine that varies the resistance pressure according to how easy or hard the person training finds it. Also one that tracks the full workout through an interface to an ipod as many of the cardio training machines do these days.

  2. One word: Crossfit. Gives you a real workout as opposed to just wasting your time for half an hour on a treadmill, provides community (which provides extra incentive to show up), and provides competition since all workouts are scored (either by total weight, total rounds, or total time, depending on the workout in question).

  3. @Matt Crossfit is great, but serves a minority of the fitness world. I personally like the idea of competition with my workout, which is why it appeals to me, but for a larger percentage of people that is a deterrent. Leaderboards actually become a negative to a lot of people in regards to fitness.

    Nike+, while great, has a heavy focus on the competitive nature of fitness. A large majority of those users actually just walk and aren’t looking for leaderboards or competition. From a business perspective though, it makes sense for Nike to design around only the competitive users, because the more they run, the more they need Nike’s products 🙂

    Fitness is just part of a greater wellness program that the world needs to adopt in order to make change. When you think of Fitness as just a piece of the bigger wellness puzzle, you realize why people fail at the gym. There isn’t an overall social meaning to what they are doing. A lot of fitness involves self-motivation, but the social support is what Gamification will help with. Gamification will be a part of the overall wellness solution and we are proud to be working with Judy and Healthy Community Development to define that.

    • I agree that CrossFit serves a minority; however, coach Glassman has serendipitously created a gamified methodology of exercise. This “gamification”, I believe, has mass appeal, which helps explain the explosive spread of CrossFit. We should explore elements of CrossFit and apply them to other methods of exercise to make getting fit more engaging. Of course we can get into the discussion of which methods of exercise are better than others, but what matters most is just getting people to move.

  4. Exercise software can be kind of boring, and especially for kids.

    If you guys could make something that is both useful and entertaining, and appeals to the younger generation, then you’re in for a big hit.

    Will be interesting to see how this evolves.