The History of One Gamer’s Exercise Journey
Now with science!
Starting hating Gym, and now we’re here
Put me in a lineup, I’m probably one of the last people you’d expect drank the Kool-Aid of exercise and its benefits: I love food, I love making food, I love video games, I love sitting. But you know what I don’t love? The threat of human mortality. After all, I got a lot of games I still want to play, and death puts the kibosh on that real quick.
School didn’t do a great job teaching me about the perks of exercise, but it’s all there: weight management (not necessarily loss, unless you’re shooting for that specifically), health risk reduction, strengthening your inner skeleton soldier and muscles, and so on. And it’s not all just physical elements (although those are useful in staving off mortality and whatnot); regular exercise reduces feelings of anxiety and overall depression, both on the short- and long-term. Heck knows we could all do with a decrease in those vibes.
But on the same vein, one of the highest health risks looming over people is sedentary behavior: long hours behind a desk at work, just not moving (or not being able to move. Thanks, Capitalism), or heavy screentime to cope with the fact that the workplace is exhausting and we need to escape. Gamers can, and have, easily fallen into that pit.
I’m not an authority on fitness, or a gym subscriber, or even someone who particularly enjoys exercise. The few friends who have been around me while I try running or yoga can attest to this. There’s a lot of groaning, sometimes wheezing, and occasionally screaming. But what I do enjoy are games.
For a long time, video games have had a unique submarket: Active Video Games, Exergames, “tennis on the Nintendo,” call it what you will. Science has inferred that playing Active Video Games (AVGs) at a certain level produces similar results as lower intensity physical activity. Granted, this is more prevalent in games involving lower-body movements, like the feet and legs, than upper body and arm movements, just based on the types of AVGs available at time of study. All the same, a lot of an AVG’s effectiveness is dictated by players committing to proper, effective play: dancing with one’s feet instead of batting at floormat arrows with hands; making full, sweeping arm motions instead of simple wrist flicks; holding exercise controllers in the proper position, even if it makes the exercise more difficult.
I’ve been playing AVGs now for over fifteen years. The whole time, I’ve grown more and more invested in them for any number of reasons: personal goals, external factors, and the simple allure of “ooh, that looks cool” that games hold over me. What started as something fun to do with friends evolved into something I wanted to do for me, and further into something that I needed to just keep going.
The articles and research are objective and factual, based on their studies, but my story is my own and isn’t indicative of any universal call to action. As I and others like to say: “Live your best life.”
Fun, Friends, and Dance Pads
My early times with AVGs were based on two things: novelty and company. In elementary school, my best friend would drag me up and down Bungie’s Halo on maximum difficulty, and would often spam Link’s sword-spin attack in Super Smash Bros. Melee. But when she busted out this clunky, arrowed floormat and hooked it up to her PlayStation 2, we were finally on equal footing.
Dance Dance Revolution (Max 2, specifically) was an equalizer: we were both starting out at nothing, and got to enjoy each other’s rise into…let’s be nice and call it “basic competence” in the dancing game. We’d pick it up here and there, set it back down for a while, but while we were jumping and stepping and wheezing, we were also having fun. It eventually drove me to asking, begging for the only DDR game to be released on our household Gamecube: Mario Mix.
Fast forward into high school. That same friend and I would descend on our Friday Gang’s house, slide into the basement, and play DDR SuperNova for hours on end. Only two at a time could play, but everyone else would sit, cheer (or boo, as friends are wont to do), and just be a part of the group experience for a bit. Somehow, I think my unathletic, asthmatic self was the best at it.
Even at home, my family marveled at the Nintendo Wii’s flagship Wii Sports, and eventually took the plunge into Wii Fit. Trading off on the different sports, or the Fitness Challenges, just felt that much more fun when we were doing it as a family. All of them, in fact, were that much more fun when played in a group, whether dance-battling only one other person or with an audience backing us up.
There’s something to be said for the health benefits of exercising with others: a decrease in poor mental health when exercising with others, the human need for social relationships and connectedness, all tied into the inherent benefits of exercise. Other studies note significant improvements in mental, physical, and emotional qualities of life, in regards to group-based exercise against solo activity. That doesn’t even touch on the reduction in perceived stress levels (in the study’s subjects, at least).
When working with (or, potentially, against) a partner, studies have indicated that people are able to increase their resistance in exercise: one more rep, holding a plank for a bit longer, and so on. One can see the parallels in something like DDR or Wii Fit, with their scores and local leaderboards popping up after every game. As people, we’re even inclined to improve simply based on what we see: if we see someone working harder, or faster (or on a higher difficulty), we are inclined to pursue similarly. Monkey see, monkey want to do.
Add in the anticipation of working out with people you care about (or, at least, enjoy), and it makes a lot more sense why people would return to exercise classes every week, or get excited to go to their friend’s house to dance. The social element is what can hook people into the experience. Where it gets difficult is when that social element grows further and further away.
Continental Catalysts and Beating the Punch
I fell off the exercising train for about five years; the stress of college itself for four years, a high-intensity year serving at Buffalo Wild Wings, and my youthful metabolism was enough to keep me feeling okay. Enter living in a hotel for six months: cramped kitchen, limited options to make and store food at home, plenty of carryout options nearby, and free continental breakfast. Add in that my work had gone from highly-active to sedentary in the snap of a finger, and I ran headlong into a wall. My meal options made me feel sluggish and tired, from waking up to going to bed at night, and I could feel my body getting slower and slower. To this day, I still avoid continental hotel breakfast if I can help it.
I had access to the hotel gym, though, and tried giving the cycles and ellipticals a shot for a while, my phone playing whatever TV show I was into at the moment. If not that, then running in place in front of the hotel room TV (apologies to anyone living below us) while playing video games. As good as the animated Clone Wars series was, I still preferred playing video games whenever I could. I justified my actions as “hey, I’m still getting exercise, and that’s what matters.”
My entire approach at that time revolved around diverting attention away from the “pain” of exercise. In the linked article, Malcolm Johnson infers that splitting one’s attention (cognitive distraction) is both common and effective for controlling pain; as our attention is a finite resource, by allocating more of it to something not painful, we can more effectively reduce our own perception of pain. Now, this may be more readily applied to things like getting shots or receiving medical treatment, but as an asthmatic whose lungs like to feel sharp and stabby when I work out too much, I can attest to the traditional “pain” element. But in general, especially for someone who isn’t used to working out, there is a deal of exertion and soreness that comes with starting an exercise habit, and distracting seemed helpful at the time.
In my research now, science slapped Past Me over the head for my old habits. Naturally, distracting myself from this “pain” was serving as a detriment to my efforts: individuals who focus on the positives of exercise while exercising are reported to perceive said exercise more pleasantly, versus not focusing on (or, in my case, distracting from) the affective outcomes at all. Additionally, by focusing on the exercise and not distracting from their body, subjects were found to breathe more effectively and improved their overall heartrate, among other things.
Separating my attention between exercise and games may have diminished overall returns, but at that time, I probably wouldn’t have cared. I had so many stories, so many games I wanted to experience! And for all intents and purposes, this outlook, scientifically misguided as it was, guided my habits going forward.
By the time my partner and I finally moved into the residence hall for my work, it was the holidays, and my partner lovingly bestowed a copy of Wii Fit U upon me (directly from my Wish List). It wasn’t long before the students I worked with knew me as the owner of the funky little pedometer, and would regularly return it when it would fly off my belt. I was running in place at home, tracking those calories, and doing what I could without a gym right downstairs.
Was Wii Fit U helpful in tracking how much movement I got in a day, and challenging me to burn a set number of calories to maybe lose weight, and shaming my progress based on a metric that that harmful to both my physical and mental health? Yes, yes, and yes. But did I realize that last part about the Body Mass Index quickly enough? Absolutely not. What I did see was how much weight I lost when I was on antidepressants, and subsequently how much weight I gained after taking myself off of them. So much of my time playing Wii Fit U was in pursuit of, and trying to justify, getting back down to “depression-era” weights. And when you type something like that out, you realize, in hindsight, that doesn’t seem like a healthy thing to be pursuing at all.
I don’t think I need linked articles to articulate how much it sucks to fall short of a goal, or to not see any changes towards a long-term goal, no matter your efforts. But in terms of weight-based goals, they can be inherently harmful. Some goals, for some people (like my own), detract from overall health and wellness and concentrate more heavily, or exclusively, on weight. On numbers.
It took a long time for me to stop, but eventually, I weaned off of religiously checking my weight on Wii Fit U. I’d still do the activities, but I tried to do them just for me, not the numbers. But in time, even that started to plateau. I needed something different.
By 2018, my preference for physical activity had largely devolved into full-blown distraction: setting up a floor pedal contraption, getting my controller (or keyboard/mouse if needed), and just going for a while. But somewhere in my experimenting, I stumbled into Sunless Seas and, in time, Sunless Skies.
Those were some of the first times that the old feeling of “flow” hit me in full force. Flow, for anyone who hasn’t been blessed by it yet, is getting so lost in an activity or task that you seem to zero out everything else around you. In my experience, that’s included the perception of time, biological needs (eating, using the restroom), and social interaction. Hours and hours, even entire days, have gone by in a rush of flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [ME-high Sheek-SENT-me-high] (pioneer of flow’s psychology) describes these tasks that we can get lost in as “autotelic activities,” and they vary from person-to-person. Some people get into flow at work, others when they’re exercising, others when they play games. In his book, Finding Flow (1998), Csikszentmihalyi says that “An autotelic activity is one we do for its own sake because to experience it is the main goal.” So imagine, if you would, performing such an activity, experiencing that state of flow, while doing some rote physical fitness. Floor pedaling, let’s say. Both of Sunless games hit me with that. I started pedaling, started playing, and didn’t realize that I was in a flow state until hours later. My legs were less than thrilled with me, but I had basically achieved what I was looking for: full engrossment in play, while still getting the benefit of physical activity.
Jump with me now to early 2020. I heard some rumblings about this newer exercise game on the Nintendo Switch: Ring Fit Adventure. Having finally weaned myself almost entirely off of Wii Fit U, I was hesitant at first…but all it took was one YouTube creator’s take to convince me to take the plunge.
Fundamentally, Ring Fit Adventure is a completely different experience than Wii Fit U, or even any other AVG I’d known up to that point. It combined simple Role-Playing Game mechanics (attacking, defending, potions) into gameplay that necessitated exercise to continue. And it wasn’t like a jogging game in Wii Fit U where you could flip the TV input to something else; Ring Fit Adventure threw obstacles in your way, enemies you needed to confront, and you couldn’t do that if you weren’t watching. Ring Fit Adventure was the unrequested answer to my struggles with fitness to that point, and it worked. It was the shift into full concentration on the exercise I was doing, because that was the game I was playing. Slap in a low-energy narrative to follow along, fun characters to run into, and a genuine sense of progress, and I was finally, finally concentrating just on what I was doing with my body.
To me, the most important way Ring Fit Adventure helped me was by not measuring my body’s progress, but measuring my efforts. It keeps track of my reps, my exercise, my efforts, not the results. I get little confetti parties after doing so many exercises, or making progress in the story. Studies have shown that progress on our goals leads to a more positive state of being. People who make such progress feel happier, are more satisfied with life, and experience more positive emotions and an increase in wellbeing. Those same positive emotions spur us on to act, to keep going with whatever is creating those vibes to begin with. Assuming one can get started on whatever can result in those feelings (still the most difficult part of any new habit), then the cycle is self-perpetuating: perform the activity, get good vibes, repeat ad infinitum. By being easy to jump into (both narratively and physically), Ring Fit Adventure allows for the greatest number of people to get in and start building those habits quickly and easily.
Additionally, people who are motivated both learn better and remember more of what they’ve learned. Whether that motivation is in reaching a certain number of calories burnt in a session, exercising for a set amount of time, progressing some amount in the overworld map, players are constantly pushed in a forward momentum. They’re also constantly beset by performance-approach goals: goals that focus on positive outcomes of competition, like outperforming others. Ring Fit Adventure doubles down on this by putting players in conflict with any number of monsters or opponents that can only be defeated by exercise, and (narratively and mechanically) outperforming all of them.
So much of where Ring Fit Adventure excels is in motivation: intrinsically, some players might be able to justify working out, based on the short- and long-term feel-good benefits. But extrinsically, players are suckers for progress. We want to make progress on this (simple) story, we want to play the game by the rules (and exercise accordingly as a result), we want to make it to the next world, we want to unlock new exercises, we want to move forward. More than anything, it makes players want to come back. Fitness games try to increase player self-efficacy and self-regulation, but often in terms of results, weight loss most of all. Ring Fit Adventure is always just trying to help players build new habits, celebrating the small milestones, and celebrating the habit-forming itself.
All that to say, I’m glad I started that habit before 2020 went much further.
Solitude, Stress, and Closed Loops
It wasn’t much longer before the world, the US, and specifically my college workplace began to shut down at the start of COVID-19’s international tour. The students who lived in my residence hall were gone, our work was more quickly finished, and all I and my coworkers were left with was time. Time, and stress. For a minute, I would team up with some of my coworkers to go to our on-campus gym (which we cleaned and wore masks in during use), and for the first time, I was concentrating on exercise and exercise alone. I’d be too zapped to be stressed, and I felt good about it! Of course, it wasn’t long before some other department had it shut down completely, so back to square one we went!
Around then, I yanked out the old dance mat to Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix, just to see if I still had the old feet in me (and to spice up my Ring Fit adventures). It didn’t take long for my rhythm to come back, and for me to start sweating up a familiar storm. And heck if cardio, dance-based or otherwise, isn’t scientifically proven to be good for you. The more I rediscovered which songs I liked jamming out to, the quicker I could select them, the less downtime I had between songs, the more consistent the workout felt! Hashtag Maximum Exertion, amirite?
But I still had Ring Fit Adventure, which had rapidly become my standby. I felt genuinely lucky to have snagged mine before the pandemic drove demand up into the stratosphere, if not for my physical wellness, then for my mental wellness. The opening acts of the pandemic were my first real bout of isolation, and it was an adjustment, and all I could lean on was establishing and sticking to a routine. At least one study has even noted that, while the world was shut down, AVGs served as “an enjoyable way of overcoming common barriers to physical exercise” during the quarantine period. It might not the full machinery might of a Planet Fitness, but in a pinch, home can (and will) do.
While it hasn’t been demonstrated that exercise prevents the development of COVID-19, research has noted that it “will help maintain and counteract the negative effects of isolation and confinement stress on immune competency.” Layman’s terms: if we have to (or had to) be isolated, it is best to stay as active. That way, we can stave off the body getting complacent on us and, most importantly, make sure it’s ready to fight off whatever might rear its head, COVID or otherwise.
Once, after bringing the little cherubs back to campus and assisting with an event, I was particularly ornery and stressed-out (literal pandemic, kids who couldn’t wear masks right, summarily useless departments outside of ours, take your pick). My boss told me, full-stop, to go home and take a nap. Instead of taking a nap, I blasted through a bunch of Ring Fit Adventure, cooled down, and then took a nap.
While research has demonstrated that exercise initially spikes the body’s stress response, the long-term effects include lower levels of stress hormones (ie cortisol, epinephrine) after bouts of physical activity. To put it differently, “Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress.” I guess all that weird gobbledygook about runner’s high has some official backing now. Even more so, concentrating fully on exercise (versus splitting one’s attention between exercise and another item or stressor) resulted in a greater calming effect, squarely spitting in the face of Past Mike’s previous notions. But whether it was just one rough day, or the more long-spanning/ongoing pandemic, Ring Fit Adventure and other AVGs have been instrumental in keeping me from absolutely losing it.
Which brings us to earlier in 2021, the cusp of summer, another year with the vile cherubs in the books. Searching for other ways to play Dance Dance Revolution led me down a rabbit hole of auctions and specialty stores, eventually led me to Stepmania on…the PC? Fast-forward a week from my discovery, I found out how to hook up my Gamecube dance mat to the computer, had downloaded the entire Mario Mix tracklist, both of the DDR albums from my youth, and was curating the other installments for best hits and remixes, working up that dancing cardio sweat all over again. Where I started, I returned to in a different form, on a different platform. Everything had come full circle.
Habits, Old and New
So with the loop of my journey closed (for now), what have I stopped?
Wii Fit U largely collects dust now. When I had all my consoles hooked up, I’d kick it on every so often, check my weight, and ignore whatever arbitrary goal Past Me set for down the line. I’d say it was just to see where I was at, but I don’t think that’s the actual reason. The attachment and dependence on numbers still drives some part of me, as much as I try to ignore it. I’ll sometimes go into the full graph of my time using Wii Fit U, see the points of data showing different weigh-ins. See the dip where I started taking antidepressants. The spike where I stopped. I’ve reminded myself that I may never get there again. Tried to convince myself that that’s okay. They’re just numbers.
It’s gotten easier, with my situation forcing a downsizing of my possessions. The Wii U is boxed up, the Balance Board tucked away in a storage unit. On the same vein, I made sure to bring dance mats and Ring Fit Adventure with me. They travel well, can be stored easily, and are easy to pick up and start playing. In fact, I just kicked off a game of Ring Fit Adventure for the first time in months just last night. I’m definitely a bit out of practice, but it felt good. Familiar, encouraging, good. As with so many things we try to do for ourselves, building and maintaining habits is one of the most difficult things we can do, motivational science be damned. The first hurdle is always the hardest.
Despite building up my own habits, despite trying to do okay for myself, despite feeling deep down that I’m okay with myself, there is always a voice of inadequacy. Emotionally, I’m not sure if I’ll ever be okay with my body, no matter how I try to justify it, no matter what kind of progress I make. On the flipside, I also know there are a lot of tricks that mainstream culture throws at me to make me feel that way, so I try to love myself and my journey in spite of that. Spite is a powerful motivator, after all.
I may never have the levels of energy I did when DDR was the bond between high school friends, but I am doing what I can with what I have. I appreciate the tools that have helped me pursue that, appreciate how they’ve changed over time, and appreciate how rooted their efforts are in science. Now, there’s an Endless Mode on StepMania that I’m going to give another shot…or maybe a couple stages in Ring Fit Adventure. After all, every step counts.
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