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Fitness Trackers and Competition Help Get People Moving

Gila Isaacson Gila Isaacson
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Who doesn’t love a good game? From Monopoly to Risk to Uno to Scrabble and a million others, we all have a favorite. Whether it’s the rush that comes from winning or just a fun way to get through a rainy afternoon indoors, games are a wonderful, healthy way to spend quality time with loved ones. 


But what if you could apply the principles of games and use them to motivate people in other areas of their lives? This concept is known as gamification, and it is widely used in various industries and even in the workplace. 


Not everyone enjoys exercise. But everyone enjoys a good game. So when you make exercise into a game by adding elements like rules, points, levels, and badges, you turn what may be a chore for some into just another game to play–you transform it from arduous work that is dreaded and avoided to an enjoyable activity. 


Fitness trackers are supposed to encourage you to get you off your couch and into the gym, like the feeling you get when your smart watch buzzes if you hit the goal of 10,000 steps a day. And although a tracker definitely can make a difference, they don’t always work. I remember my first smartwatch. I was so pumped to reach my 10,000 step goal I actually ran around the shopping center (true story). But over time, the thrill wore off. And now my smart watch lives in a drawer next to my bed. Gasp! Others either forget that their smart watch is also a fitness tracker or glance at the time, and with a bit of guilt, realize that they have completed less than 1,000 steps that day! 

Enter gamification. A recent study published by JAMA Internal Medicine shows that gamification really does work. 


During the study, 600 overweight or obese adults were provided with wearable step trackers, along with goals set to increase their daily steps. The control group received only step trackers and goals, while the other groups also had support, collaboration, or competition–all of which are elements of games–connected to their goals. 


After six months, those who had participated in the gamification-plus groups achieved much higher daily step counts than those who were in the control group. In a fascinating twist, the researchers continued to measure the step counts of all participants for another three months–but without any gamification. And although everyone’s step counts dropped, those who were part of the initial gamification groups still had higher activity levels than those from the control group, in spite of the fact that the researchers had removed all game-like elements.


So you see, exercise really can be fun and games. Play on!

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