Posted On:
Tuesday, February 1, 2022
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: The Gamification of Fitness

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A photo of Luigi, Yoshi, and Mario figurines standing with their fists raised in triumph.

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about some practical, tangible suggestions of things you can implement to make your training and racing a positive and enjoyable experience. This week, we’re talking about a trend that has creeped its way into the fitness industry.

Raise your hand if you wear a fitness tracker that measures your daily steps.  Keep your hand raised if the “You Win” or “Goal Met!” that you receive upon hitting your step goal for the day is something that you seek out.

What I just described is an example of “gamification”.  Gamification is the application of game mechanics into non-game environments, such as a website, online community, business, or even something like fitness to increase participation and engagement.  Case in point: Walking around living our lives is not what most of us would describe as a “game”.  And yet, walking around has become a game through the tactics employed by the companies who make fitness trackers.

While the underlying goal of this process may be positive and purely intentioned, gamification of things like fitness can have an adverse impact when the game becomes more prominent in one’s mind than the thing itself (i.e. your workout).  For this reason, this week’s practical tip is this:

Play the game, but don’t let the game play you.

This is an important nuance to be aware of. There is a reason why companies and entire industries deploy the tactic of gamification; it’s something that resonates with us as a species on a deep, visceral level. It taps into our emotions and effectively hacks into the pleasure centers in our brains, triggering an endorphin rush when we interact with the system/process/thing being gamified. You know that feeling I’m talking about; who doesn’t like to be told that they’re succeeding and/or winning?

As I mentioned before, there may be pure intentions behind some uses of gamification.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to consume a product or make doing a job or task “fun”.  (Even in 1964, Mary Poppins was singing “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.  You find the fun and - SNAP! - the job’s a game!”)  In a lot of cases, some gamification in the world of fitness can help people embark on and/or stay consistent with a fitness routine, which is a very, very positive thing!

However, when companies are hacking those pleasure centers of our brains in ways we don’t and/or cannot fully recognize, that’s when - in my humble opinion - it becomes a problem, as it then crosses the line and becomes manipulation, which is quite different than a game.

Here are some tactics that companies in the fitness industry have put to use, so you can learn to recognize when the game may, in fact, be playing you:


Progress Bars

Progress Bars - visual representations of where you are relative to a specific result/outcome - are deployed in a variety of ways in the fitness industry; step trackers are one of the most common ones.  They’re also used by Garmin to show where users are enroute to earning digital badges.  Zwift uses them to show you how much XP you’ve earned toward your next level.  Strava uses progress bars to show where you are relative to goals you’ve set for yourself.

Again, setting goals isn’t the problem here.  However, getting caught up in where you are on the progress bar and starting to tune out other things in a quest to complete the progress bar can be very problematic.  Examples include:

  • Going out to get the remaining number of steps to hit your goal even when your body is telling you that it needs to sleep more than it needs extra steps.
  • Pursuing a goal for completing a specific number of miles in a week/month/year even when injuries happen or it no longer makes sense to train that much.

My advice on progress bars is this: Don’t get so caught up in completing a progress bar that you forget what you’re actually trying to make progress toward.

Leaderboards

Leaderboards are deployed by almost every technology company in the fitness industry.  Strava is probably the most widely recognized, but a variety of companies - including Garmin, Peloton, Zwift, and CrossFit - use them.

With leaderboards come ranks.  And a ranking system deeply appeals to us humans, as this cashes in big time on our competitive drive.  Many, many of us (perhaps even all of us!) want to be “better”.  If we want to be better, that means that we need to have something (or someone) to be better than.  We can’t be better if we don’t have a comparison point, and leaderboards provide that to us in a very visual and tangible way.

Competition is obviously an important part of sport, and it can be quite fun to test our personal physical limits and see where we stack up against others.  However, my advice on this is: Keep that type of mindset and attitude for actual races, not for virtual leaderboards that really don’t mean a whole lot of anything, when it comes down to it.

Streaks

Ahhhh, streaks. By now, many of you likely know that I’m not a fan of multi-day fitness streaks. In fact, there’s only one streak I’ve ever endorsed. My opinion on this is unpopular, and it can make some folks feel rather indignant when I talk about it, but after this many years in this industry, I can say with a ton of confidence that streaks are more harmful than they are good.

At its core, here’s what a streak offers someone: The streak itself.  It is a sunk-cost fallacy.  The longer a streak goes on, the more someone is motivated to keep it going, mostly because breaking the streak would cause the person some amount of disappointment and unhappiness.  Thus, people often keep paying into the idea of a streak (by maintaining the streak) even though it’s not actually worth anything real, simply because they already have so much invested in it.

Garmin deploys this tactic with its “Current Goal Streak” for users who hit their daily step goal and Apple Watch uses it for their rings that track the amount of calories a user burns in a day.  

My best advice on streaks is this: Don't even start them.  You are already busy and have a million things to do in your daily life.  Don’t add this to the pile.

Digital Badges

In the fitness industry, digital badges are effectively intangible finisher medals.  They can represent many things, from completion of a particular fitness challenge, to a mileage milestone, to (you guessed it) a streak.  Like so many other examples we’ve talked about, these are not inherently evil, but indicate that gamification is in play if they’re present.

They’re deployed with great success on Strava, Garmin, Peloton, Apple Watch, and more.

My advice on digital badges is this: If you happen to earn a digital badge because of something you’re already doing as a part of a wise training pathway to reach your goals, then great!  But don’t go on a quest to earn digital badges and forsake what is actually important for you to reach the goals you’ve set for yourself.

Community

Community might be the most devilish example on this list, because community is so important to our species.  (If the last two years have taught us nothing else, they have taught us that.)  It is possible for true, authentic community to be cultivated in fitness and endurance sports, and that community should be embraced and celebrated.  In all honesty, the community surrounding endurance sports and fitness is one of the main reasons I decided to pursue this (both training and coaching) as a lifestyle instead of an intermittent hobby.  It’s what I love most about it!

However, community is gamified when companies and/or platforms attempt to manufacture community.  Some examples include:

  • Membership offered in tiered groups to users who complete specific tasks and/or want access to specific information (Strava comes to mind)
  • Manipulating the information one sees in a service or on a platform to keep one feeling more connected with seemingly like-minded individuals on one’s “team” (algorithmically-generated news or social feeds come to mind, and these are used by many companies such as Strava, Peloton, and Zwift)

When it comes to community, my advice is this: Seek out true community, not false community or an algorithmically-generated one.  Remember that fitness companies and social media platforms are monetizing your time and attention.  If they are a true channel for you to cultivate real relationships, by all means, engage!  But don’t mistake manufactured community for real community. 


The deep dive into all of these examples of gamification in fitness is intended to increase your awareness of when this tactic is being deployed so you can therefore be actually aware of what’s going on. (As you all know, I’m a big, big fan of self-awareness in fitness and in life.)

This increased awareness can enable you to recognize when there’s a game afoot.  Then, you can decide if you actually want to play, versus being manipulated into playing a game you didn’t even realize was a game in the first place.  It’s okay to play the game.  Just don’t let the game play you. :)

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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