Business Unusual

Will the device that helped turn you into a couch potato also help get you fit?

You are very efficient at converting food into energy and burn it even more efficiently. Your body was designed to move a lot, but modern lifestyles don’t require much at all.

You have evolved to survive on basic foods eaten when you can, but now there is no shortage of high energy foods. The consequence is a growing problem of low fitness and increasing rates of obesity.

Two of our favourite pasttimes are enjoyed seated. At a table eating something or in front of a screen.

Governments commission research and start programmes to get people active. Gyms and sports clubs hope to temp or coerce you to join and now tech companies are looking to use technology to do the same.

Given the levels of disruption elsewhere, this should be easy then.

The Quantified Self. The Active Game. The Immersive Gym.

There are three approaches.

If you are going to change you must first want to. To want to change you need to know what you are and what you could be. In the past, that would have been a weight measurement and if you were concerned about it, it was unlikely you ever saw something encouraging in the result. To avoid that, you stop looking.

Perhaps it would be better to set the targets lower. Can you move as much as you did yesterday? Could you walk a little more than you did last week? Could you keep your resting heart rate within the safe range? Can you get it to a good rate when exercising? Did you snack much today? Could you manage to not snack for three days straight?

These questions and, more importantly, the means to easily measure them form the basis for the quantified self. It uses the popular idea that is it hard to manage something you can’t measure. The act of measuring something often creates a need to either maintain it or change it. Rather than rely on only one metric, you can measure multiple and look to move at least one just a little or keep important ones stable in order to keep you motivated to keep trying. If the measurements are taken throughout the day and you can present the results in an engaging and compelling way, you may be more likely to stick to it.

It is the same reward loop you get from eating comfort foods or bingeing on a favourite series, just that it has health benefits.

It used to be that you needed expensive and fiddly equipment to do this, now you can get started just using your phone. The data may not be as accurate as you hope, but you are not looking for accuracy, but rather a consistency and good trends.

This looks to be the most likely method to get you back on a path to better health, but real fitness and weight loss need something more active so we need one or both of the next two methods too.

The Active Game

If games got us into this, they can get us out. The best game characters are very active fighters or the world’s best athletes. A game that requires you to move like your heroes should get you fit in no time. The catch was replicating the skill of a character in a game with your much less physical abilities to do what they do. You could compensate by making a quick walk into a brisk run, but your lived experience is hard to reconcile with your avatar's. Using Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality you may convince some to lose themselves in the game and not notice the physics, but that is not easy.

A gamer set himself the challenge to play an hour of VR games at least four times a week for a month and see if he could lose weight. He also opted to go easy on snacks and second helpings. After a month he lost 2.2 kg from 75kg. It did not sound like it was something he would easily be able to continue doing as the games were repetitive and for the game to offer a meaningful exercise it could not entail too much other than sustained physical tests.

Virtual cycling, flying, boxing, tennis and most other popular sports are being tested in this way. A recent start-up hoping to crack the issue is Black Box VR. They plan to run a gym with members entering a black box, donning a VR suit connected to resistance ropes that act as your controllers, as you improve the resistance increases.

The theory makes sense, but there is a problem. It is hard and makes you sweat, the principle reason you don’t really want to go to the gym in the first place.

The Virtual Gym

Going to the gym and having others judge your fitness skills may be enough of a reason to not go, but the effort to get there may be all it needs to have you quit. Peloton hopes to turn your home into a private gym. Nothing new in that. Their innovation is having their cycle and treadmill feature a large touchscreen. You pay a membership and select one of the hundreds of classes offered by pro trainers to talk you through each session. On the screen, should you wish, are the comparative achievements of your virtual classmates to spur you to push harder or revel in your top dog status. Or you can hide it. It is not cheap. Besides the R500 monthly subs, the cycle and treadmill will set you back over R70 000. The hardware is impressive, but the price tag will hurt them.

If boxing is more your thing, then you could not get better than Floyd Mayweather’s virtual boxing gym. Arrive, pop on the VR goggles and have Mr Money himself take you through his workout program. It is like a Jane Fonda video for the Oculus generation.

I think some combination of the current attempts may get us more active, but not in their current form.

There are two reasons. People that enjoy exercise don’t need the distracting and expensive gadgets to get moving. They are not the problem.

It is the much larger group that doesn’t enjoy getting sweaty at all. Thinking a game will overcome that is missing the point of the game. A game is not real, exercise is. When a game feels like an exercise, those that don’t like exercise won’t like the game.

Kids love being active but can be easily tempted to sit still watching TV or play video games. We need to get kids to love physical exercise. If the focus on games for kids is to have them grow up understanding that exercise can be fun for how it makes you feel, even if it is not the most entertaining thing to do, we can fix this. A sports company makes kids size gym equipment in bright colours to get them into the swing of things. Getting a parent to do a class with a child sounds like a good exercise and bonding time, there are classes for kids but it does not appear any for parents and kids to do together. That may be a way to get both groups active.

Perhaps the goal of workout games is a bridge too far.

Here is my suggestion:

The health benefits of a regular brisk walk or a lengthy bike ride might be a better option than an action scene.

Go for a 15-minute walk through some of the world’s best walking trails or down the best boulevards of world cities. Go for a ride around landmarks and stunning scenery. Plan your next holiday while walking along a beach you may want to visit or stir up memories by revisiting an old spot you have not seen in years.

It only needs stream footage shot by someone doing the real world exercise. Trading a walk in your city might get you access to walks in any others.

What might get you to be more active?



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