Can a video game really help you get fit?

With many of us spending much more time indoors, more of us are turning to games like 'Ring Fit Adventure' to keep active. But do they work? We investigate…

This was going to be the year. The year I finally stopped making excuses, stopped eating chips for breakfast (that has never happened, but there’s been similar atrocities) started going to the gym and lost some weight. And then COVID-19 happened. Still, at least it stopped me going to the chip shop.

This damn virus has changed everything about our lives, and yet strangely it’s only made me more resolute in sticking to my mission. I’m determined not to waste another year. I’m so bored of being overweight. I don’t feel fat in my head. I spent 20 years of my life a skinny, lithe thing. I miss feeling good about myself. I miss the days when putting socks on in the morning didn’t feel like going into war. Global pandemic or not, I’m determined not to let another year get away from me.

I thought all of this and then I put the PlayStation 4 on.

I did wonder, though, could video games help me get fit? I had a Wii. I played it occasionally. I’d have the odd blast on Wii Sports (normally at Christmas when visiting family… with a glass of Bailey’s in one hand and a nunchuk in the other) or Wii Fit (I think I got on the board once, at least). I did once play through said system’s excellent House Of The Dead adaptation, 2009’s Overkill, in one gargantuan sitting and felt a bit out of breath by the end of it, but I’m not sure I got everything from the Wii that Nintendo might have hoped I had done.

The House Of The Dead: Overkill
The House Of The Dead: Overkill. Credit: Modern Dreams

I think my problem with the Wii was that, whenever I tried to engage with fitness via it, rarely did the interface in which I did so feel all that much like a game. Call me old-fashioned, but when I turn on my games console I want to play games. When Nintendo convinced an entire generation of pensioners scared of dementia that they’d be tickety boo if only they bought a copy of their DS system and something from the Brain Age series, they lured them to the checkout till with the giggling, discombobulated floating head of world famous neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima and a whole load of fun looking puzzles.

Conversely, when Nintendo tried to get me to engage with Wii Fit, they showed me a load of graphs that gave me a migraine.

And so when lockdown began I found myself in a flat with an Xbox One, a PS4, a Nintendo Switch, a DS, a 3DS, a GameBoy that literally weighs the equivalent of a house brick, a PSP that hasn’t been able to eject Silent Hill Origins for 13 years now, a GameCube, an Amiga 1200, each iteration of PlayStation, a SNES Classic… and a copy of Ring Fit Adventure I’d lobbed £70 at late last year, sort of under the illusion – like New Year’s gym memberships or wearing shorts while you’re watching the Olympics – that buying it was half the battle. I opened the box. It was either that or devise a weight loss plan based around a greying and surprisingly heavy GameBoy.

Ring Fit Adventure
Ring Fit Adventure. Credit: Nintendo

If you missed the boat on Ring Fit Adventure upon its release late last October – and chances are you might have, like the Switch itself was a few weeks back, the game appears to be currently sold out everywhere (your best bet is eBay where they’re going for an utterly COVID-crazy £300) – then the game is Nintendo’s attempt to evolve the Wii Fit format, which they do, it must be said, superbly. Ring Fit Adventure is very much a game; as RPGs go, it’s not Diablo, but there are skill trees and difficult bosses and interesting environments to explore. And you get to hold a massive ring while you do it, which is a first for me.

It’s challenging stuff; it took me a week to get beyond the first stage. Eventually – and many gallons of sweat later – I did and I feel all the better for it. This is doing me some good, right?

I decided to reach out to my friend Laura Williams. She’s a personal trainer. She’ll tell me how it is…

Laura, I don’t have tonnes of space to exercise in at home and I can’t get to the gym. Do you think I’m going to get anything out of Ring Fit Adventure?

“Well, first thing,” she says, “you only need just enough room to stand, kneel and lie. Over the years, I’ve trained people in front rooms not big enough to house a sofa and we’ve managed to get a good workout. What constitutes an effective exercise session is getting out of breath – for heart and lungs – which can be done in a number of ways, from jogging on the spot, to jumping around on the floor to shadow boxing. Muscle strengthening can be achieved with bodyweight exercises such as lunges, press-ups and planks and their numerous variations, while flexibility is yours for a postage stamp-sized bit of floor space.”

One of the problems I have with trying to get fit is I get bored so easily. There are monsters to kill in Ring Fit Adventure. I love monsters. I think that might help keep me on track…

“Go for short, effective sessions and be tough on yourself,” laughs Laura. “Whether you’re using a game or an online workout, you need to manage your expectations around exercise. You can be offered all the adrenaline-fueled fitness creations in the world, but if you don’t accept the fact that sometimes you won’t feel like getting sweaty and uncomfortable, but you’ll crack on anyway, you’re unlikely to pick up an exercise habit. I think exercise is best viewed like paying tax: don’t worry too much about whether you find it enjoyable or not, because you don’t have much choice. View it as the weekend supermarket-shop: probably not the most stimulating activity of your week, but once it’s done, it’s done.”

I should probably say that I hate getting the supermarket shop too. But the game! Are you sceptical?

“Not at all to be honest. I recall playing Gran Turismo before attempting my Pilates teacher training homework some years ago, and I approached the homework with a more focused, determined attitude. Joining the dots, I think that the adrenaline release from playing helped motor me through some tough fitness homework. I think the idea of mobilising our stress hormones via video games, and then putting them to good use in this way is interesting.”

I sense a ‘but’ – me running on the spot in front of a games console isn’t the same as me running around the block is it?

“No, but I also think many people might see electronic fitness as a more available, palatable intro to group exercise – especially right now. So many people have an aversion to exercise classes without ever having been to one. They’re convinced their co-ordination or non-existent fitness levels will let them down, so I think trying Ring Fit Adventure or Just Dance in the privacy of your own home could boost confidence without the ordeal of having to attend your first class without a clue of what to expect.”

Okay, I think I’m going to keep doing this then, at least until the gyms re-open…

“Great. I think if you experience any difficulties with mental health, electronic fitness can provide a healthy distraction. If, for example, you suffer with anxiety, the mental focus needed to see you through a game might help to give you a bit of breathing space from racing thoughts and worries, whereas simply heading out for a run might not give you that space you so crave.”

This is all great to hear. Fancy a game of Fortnite?

“Totally!”

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