PHILADELPHIA — For many, starting an exercise program comes with an uncomfortable feeling that it won’t really last.
It’s a phenomenon that sees gyms filled at the start of a new year, and back to normal in just a few weeks. But what if there was a scientifically proven way to increase physical activity and keep it up?
Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University School of Medicine say they have found a way. And it involves an idea that has become increasingly common over the past decade: “gamification.”
That is, mixing elements you might see in a video game — points, levels, bonuses, and other players, of course — with a workout regimen can improve the chances of sticking to it for the long haul.
“Our social connections – family members, friends, and even colleagues – can be powerful motivators, but most programs target individuals instead of leveraging these social networks,” says the study’s lead author Dr. Mitesh Patel in a press release.
“Our findings demonstrate how gamification can be designed to harness these social influences to improve health behaviors. Since these relationships are often longstanding, the impact of these interventions has the potential to be long-lasting,” adds Patel, pointing to results that showed individuals’ physical activity levels remained high three months after taking part in the experiment.
To “gamify” exercise, the researchers had 94 families (200 adults) wear activity trackers. The families then established baselines and set goals to increase their activity over a period of 24 weeks. The portion of families randomly assigned to the gamification group also had a system for earning points and progressing through levels for the first twelve weeks.
The researchers say they designed the game systems with principles from behavioral economics, such as variable rewards and loss aversion. They also based these principles around encouraging certain social incentives such as collaboration, accountability and peer support.
The families in this “gamified” group increased their activity by 27 percent more than the non-gamified group. And perhaps more importantly, while their activity did fall slightly when the game period ended, the gamified group maintained a higher overall activity level than the non-gamified group.
In fact, participants in the gamification group saw their step counts increase by nearly 1,700 steps — or about a mile. Those totals declined a bit after the study ended, but were still significantly greater than gains made by the control group.
Though the term “gamification” was coined by a consultancy company in 2002, a look at Google trends shows that the term wasn’t being searched for at all until sometime around 2010 when curiosity skyrocketed. And while activity trackers and gamification have now been popular for a while, the researchers said there have so far been few studies combining the two with community dynamics.
The researchers also noted that the an important aspect of the research was the use of ideas from behavior economics to leverage social pressures.
“While many are hopeful that digital health interventions can increase healthy behaviors, there have been few clinical trials demonstrating meaningful differences in community settings,” says study senior author Dr. Joanne Murabito. “By engaging families in an interactive game-based intervention using activity trackers, we found significant increases in physical activity. This approach is exciting because it has the potential to be scaled more broadly.”
As far as reasons to go to all the trouble to exercise in the first place, researchers have also been discovering that benefits extend well beyond traditional ideas of fitness. Recent studies have found that even a small amount of exercise lifts mood and can immediately increase energy levels. Other recent studies have even shown that exercise can slow aging on the cellular level.
The researchers said that next they plan to study how to apply gamification ideas to exercise in more diverse and at-risk populations, as well as move beyond simple step count measures.
Their full study was published last week in JAMA Internal Medicine.
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