How Social Health Games Can Make You Trimmer and Fitter

Social health games include racing against virtual partners and challenging friends to fitness tasks.

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Social gaming can make it fun—sometimes even lucrative—to exercise, eat healthfully, and take better care of yourself. Playing one of these games might mean challenging friends and co-workers to fitness tasks while logging your progress in a real-time online newsfeed. Or tracking real-life movements to inch closer to a virtual destination. Or even pumping out 10 more pushups to best a simulated opponent.

Researchers are seeing real benefits in the growing popularity of social games, created to connect people with friends and strangers alike to improve health and fitness through contests, prizes, and friendly peer pressure. The best of the games, like Zamzee and OptumizeMe, described below, are appealing, engaging, and effective, says Debra Lieberman, director of Health Games Research at the University of California-Santa Barbara, which conducts research and provides developers with design and effectiveness guidance. "Games are experiences—they're not just watered-down reality," she says. "They're motivational and educational, and they bring people together to support each other toward better health."

An editorial published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association called for more research into the opportunities and obstacles of social health games. "The size and level of engagement of the audience means that health games can affect a wide range of individuals, including those who are difficult to reach with traditional messaging," the authors wrote.

Here's a look at a few popular choices:

Zamzee. Kids who sign up for this obesity-fighting game get a pocket monitor that uses sensors to automatically track physical activity. Points are awarded for any type of movement, whether it's jogging, dancing, or jumping on the bed; the more rigorous the activity, the more points logged. Players go online to see how many points they've earned per minute, hour, and day, and can see whether their activity level is speeding up or slowing down. They can also share that data with friends, creating a sense of friendly competition. And what's a game without prizes? Kids can redeem points for rewards like popular iPhone apps and gift cards. Zamzee claims a boost in kids' activity level by an average of about 30 percent.

OptumizeMe. People who use this free mobile app can issue and accept health and fitness challenges from family and friends, track their progress, and post the results to their Facebook profiles. One user, for example, can dare another to run a 5K, or eat six servings of produce, or do 50 pushups. Players receive a virtual trophy or badge for meeting a goal. The prizes may be menial, but they're not the point, the company says. It's the friendly competition that inspires participants to take steps toward a healthier lifestyle.

Kinect Sports. The controller-free Xbox games require full-body play—you'll kick, jump, and dance while competing with and against simulated partners. A study published last year in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that virtual workout buddies often make you exercise harder than you would with a real person. Researchers analyzed 200 college students who performed five core exercises alone and then with a simulated partner whose skills were slightly superior. With a virtual partner, students were able to hold exercise positions such as a "plank" 24 percent longer than when they worked out alone. That's likely because a partner who is just a little better is an optimal match—people become discouraged if they can't begin to keep up and bored if the partner is a slug. In real life, finding the right workout buddy isn't always possible. That's why games like Kinect Sports are ideal, Lieberman says. "If you don't want to let your partner down, you'll work a little harder than normal. We also like to compete, and to be up there on the leader board and able to brag that we're the best." 

Keas. This workplace-based gaming platform connects coworkers who otherwise might not recognize each other in the hallway, let alone get involved in each others' health. It's designed to make exercising, eating healthfully, and taking better care of yourself fun and engaging. Every week teams of six employees select from among various health goals like going for three walks, avoiding fried foods, or doing stress-reduction exercises. Completing a goal earns points for rewards like real cash of $25 or $50, along with a chest-puffing status bump. Players report their activities and accomplishments on a real-time newsfeed that reaches all employees, and the company says that the support from teammates and competition against other groups is motivational. In 12-week pilot programs at companies like Pfizer and Quest Diagnostics, the company found that 70 percent of those who signed up for the game actively participated. Those who reported weight loss—about 60 percent of all participants—dropped an average of 5.5 pounds. Half the participants reported being more physically active, and the percentage who regularly ate fruits and veggies doubled to 73 percent. That's a healthy jump.

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