We all know this client’s story: Mary is a 40-plus, career-oriented woman with two kids and with 40 extra pounds she’d like to lose. Mary knows how to overcome her obesity—at least temporarily. She’s done it before. But she always gains even more weight back when she falls off her strict exercise and nutrition regimen.

Mary is caught in an ongoing struggle with weight, self-image, vitality and overall well-being. Her strategies for losing weight and becoming healthier may indeed work, but they offer only a short-term, partial solution. What can keep Mary on the exercise wagon?

So far, she has relied on external goals, which are easy to set but hard to sustain. Psychologists know that internal, intrinsic motivators—things people do purely out of enjoyment—are much more effective at driving change that lasts. What can trigger Mary’s deep-down desire to be healthier?

The answer is making exercise fun again—it needs to become play. Stuart Brown, MD, a leading researcher on play and the co-author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul (Avery 2009), defines play as “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and a sense of time” (Brown & Vaughan 2009). Exercise, on the other hand, is traditionally defined as a physical activity that must serve a purpose, typically with an external motivation: for example, losing weight, toning up, boosting sports performance, adding muscle or improving health.

Most people hire a personal trainer to achieve a goal, not to play. Clients look to experience change, so failure to achieve change is seen as a failure in service. One way to bridge this gap is to marry the concepts of exercise and play. As trainers, we can foster an environment where clients experience physical, mental and emotional transformation while enjoying an atmosphere that allows them to become lost in the moment. Think of it as “challenge play.”

Creating a Challenge Play Environment

“Play” is a relative term, as Brian Sutton-Smith describes in his book The Ambiguity of Play (Harvard University Press 2001). One person’s play can be somebody else’s tedious hard work. Therefore, the psychological aspects of a client are just as important to understand as the physical aspects.

Highly motivating challenge play offers a competitive environment—typically some kind of game. Clients generally stay motivated if they can measure their success, if they feel they are pushing their body to new limits and if they experience novelty within their exercise progressions. Some clients, however, may not enjoy competitiveness and may find challenge play scary, risky and daunting. For these clients, other forms of play are preferable.

Examples of Challenge Play Games

While providing the “suspension of self-consciousness and . . . time” that Brown describes, games can simultaneously place the ideal stress on the human body to elicit desired adaptations. Let’s look at six categories of games that you can use to create challenge play: time trial play, 3D play, mass play, distance play, partner challenge play and group challenge play. The following examples give details on each model and may spark some connections to help you discern which styles could fit specific clients.

Time Trial Play

Definition A challenge that asks how many of X you can do in Y amount of time.

Physical Benefits Improves speed, agility, quickness, power, anaerobic conditioning.

Considerations The faster and more capably clients can perform a given exercise, the shorter the time under tension should be—to avoid excessive soft-tissue irritation. For example, clients who can move quickly through a speed ladder send a high level of stress into the plantar fascia. Keep the time under tension to under 20 seconds for advanced clients. Avoid injury with proper exercise progression.

Examples CrossFit®, obstacle courses, 40-yard sprints, relay races.

Time Trial Game: SandBell® Hoops

Requirements A minimum of three HyperWear® SandBell hoops (6–20 pounds) and at least six agility rings; timer; one to two people.

Setup Line up three agility rings side by side. Line up the other three rings roughly 10–15 feet away, opposite the first three rings. Place a SandBell in each of the three rings on one side of the playing field. Set the timer to 1 minute.

Execution The participant must squat, pick up a SandBell and then throw it to the opposing ring before moving on to the next ring and throwing the next SandBell across. Once all three SandBells are thrown on one side, the player must then sprint to the other side and throw the SandBells back. The activity continues for a full minute. Landing a SandBell in the opposing ring scores a point. The objective is to see how many points the player can achieve in the given amount of time.


  • Vary the work-to-rest ratio to challenge various energy systems.
  • Use SandBells of different weights for additional challenge.
  • Set rules for different types of throws (chest pass, lateral toss, underhand).
  • Try this challenge in a prone position and crawling.
  • Play with a partner or in a competitive group setting.
Time Trial Game: ViPR® Cylinder Lift Challenge

Requirements 1 ViPR; 1 timer; one-on-one or group training.

Setup Choose a ViPR suited to the client’s capabilities and the desired outcomes. Lighter ViPRs are for improving endurance, speed and the aerobic energy system. Heavier ViPRs are for improving strength, power and the anaerobic energy system. Identify four locations on the ViPR where players can catch and throw it.

Execution Grabbing Position 1 while the ViPR is on its end, the player throws the equipment vertically, using a squat pattern, and catches it on Position 2 while decelerating back into a squat. The player now throws to Position 3, then 4, then back to 3, 2 and then to 1, preventing the ViPR from touching the ground. Be sure the client can throw and catch the ViPR safely from the positions you choose. The lower the position on the ViPR, the more challenging the exercise becomes. Repeat for the desired amount of time (30–60 seconds) and count how many catches each player is able to make.


  • Vary the work-to-rest ratio to challenge various energy systems.
  • Vary the order in which players throw and catch the ViPR. Example: Try a 1-to-4-to-1 lifting sequence.
  • Add locomotion to the exercise (lunge or shuffle pattern, for instance).
  • Start with the ViPR lying on the ground.
  • Play with a partner or in a competitive group setting.
3D Play

Definition A challenge for players who enjoy exploring what the body can accomplish in 3D space.

Physical Benefits Improves coordination, rhythm and timing, various energy systems, connective-tissue health, ability to react.

Considerations Always allow the client to start with at least 5 practice reps of the given movement, to ensure good form. Start with known movements, and progress to lesser-known movements (e.g., progress from a front lunge to a diagonal cross-over lunge).

Examples Coaches Call, Simon Says, Exercise Matrix.

3D Game: Coaches Call: Clock Bounding With Dumbbells

Requirements Light dumbbells (3–10 pounds).

Setup Identify the space around the participant by using the image of a clock (12 is straight ahead, 3 is to the right, 6 is behind, 9 is to the left). Identify which foot you want the client to bound with.

Execution The player bounds to the number you call out and then returns to the start position. When the client demonstrates good bounding ability, ask him to drive the opposite hand to knee height while bounding in a given direction. Always have the player bound back to the start position before you call out the next number. The player bounds with the same foot for 30–60 seconds before switching legs.


  • Add more coordination challenge by alternating legs with each bound vs. repeating with the same leg.
  • Vary how far the client must bound.
  • Ask the client to hold the bound on one leg for an added balance challenge.
  • Vary how high the dumbbells are driven.
  • Play with a partner or in a competitive group setting.
Mass Play

Definition A challenge for people who enjoy trying to move the maximum amount of mass in a given exercise.

Physical Benefits Improves strength and power.

Considerations Only advanced clients who have had months of practice should attempt lifting at near-maximal intensities. Provide a safer environment by using a 5-repetition maximum.

Examples Power lifting, Olympic lifting, strongman competitions.

Distance Challenge Play

Definition A challenge that asks how far players can go while performing a given exercise.

Physical Benefits Improves endurance and power.

Considerations This works best in spacious outdoor environments.

Examples Running, swimming, cycling, jumping, bounding, hopping, throwing, crawling, rolling for distance.

Partner Challenge Play

Definition Any form of the aforementioned challenge plays performed with a partner.

Physical Benefits Improves social camaraderie; pushes people to work harder because of the competition involved.

Considerations Partner up people with similar capabilities. Be sure to teach proper agility techniques to avoid injuries.

Examples Speed-Ladder Speed Game, SandBell Hoops, ViPR Lift.

Partner Challenge Game: Speed-Ladder Speed Game

Requirements One speed ladder; two people. Cones can be used, but a speed ladder creates an efficient boundary.

Setup Lay down a speed ladder, and have participants stand on opposite ends, facing each other.

Execution When the whistle blows, each player runs to her right (in relation to the ladder) and touches the end of the ladder on the opposite side with her hand. Partners must return to the start position in the same direction they came, and then repeat the action on the other side. After performing on both sides, the player who can return to her start position faster is the winner.

  • Repeat the drill for a set time to challenge various energy systems.
  • Vary the distance of the ladder.
  • Change the locomotion—shuffle, carioca, backpedal, hopping, etc.
  • Change how players start the exercise (e.g., have them start in a prone position or with eyes closed).
  • Play in a competitive group setting.
Group Challenge Play

Definition Any form of the aforementioned challenge plays performed in a group.

Physical Benefits Improves social camaraderie; pushes people to work harder because of the competition.

Considerations This is best for those who enjoy competition.

Examples Relay races, pentathlon (five-exercise event), decathlon (10-exercise event), obstacle courses.

Transforming Workouts to “Playouts”

To promote and maintain health, most people should exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes at moderate intensity or 3 days a week for 20 minutes at vigorous intensity, advise the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association (Haskell et al. 2007). For many, this may be a daunting task. It is therefore our duty as fitness professionals to provide intrinsically motivating exercise activities that enable people to adhere to their exercise goals. With challenge play, we can evolve from “working out” to “playing out” and create a much more inviting exercise experience for all.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivators

Understanding what motivates people is essential to seeing the value of challenge play. Psychologists divide motivation into two broad categories:

  • Extrinsic motivation encourages us to attain an external goal. While extrinsic motivation can be strong enough for achieving a goal, it’s often not strong enough for sustaining the achievement.
  • Intrinsic motivation encourages us to do things because we want to, not because we feel that we have to. People naturally enjoy playing, so adding play to an exercise regimen can encourage adherence.

Understanding Extrinsic Motivation

Most exercise uses extrinsic motivation, which psychologists divide into two varieties that fall on a continuum: controlled and autonomous.

Controlled extrinsic motivation. Controlled extrinsic motivation is based on an external pressure (Gagne & Deci 2005). In other words, it means exercising because “I have to.” Here are three exercise-related examples:

  • Rewards. The client exercises for a better-looking body or to reward himself with food.
  • Guilt. The client exercises to become more attractive to a spouse.
  • Coercion. A doctor tells the client to start exercising or suffer the consequences.

While controlled extrinsic motivation may push an unmotivated person to exercise, it does not last very long. If used too much, it can lead to a decrease in mental health and well-being (Vansteenkiste et al. 2004).

Autonomous extrinsic motivation. On the other end of the spectrum, autonomous extrinsic motivation happens when people seek an outcome because they have determined it has value (Gagne & Deci 2005). For example, many of us experience the health benefits of exercise, so we work out regularly to get these benefits. Another example may be joining a group class for the chance to socialize. These benefits are extrinsic, yet they resonate with our internal beliefs.

Of these two types of extrinsic motivation, autonomous is more powerful and long-lasting because it represents somebody making a value judgment they believe in. Our challenge is the time it takes to get people to find value in exercise. Those who are very deconditioned, for example, may not initially see the value of exercise, because their first experiences may be painful and uncomfortable. An understanding of autonomous extrinsic motivation can make it easier to help our clients experience the benefits of fitness that we reap every day.

Finding Intrinsic Motivation

Many people find they are unable to stick with an exercise regimen because it is not intrinsically motivating. They rely on various extrinsic motivators because they see exercise as daunting, tedious and devoid of enjoyment or novelty.

Intrinsic motivators represent things people really want to do. For an activity to be intrinsically motivating, it has to satisfy three psychological needs (Ryan & Deci 2000a):

  • Competence. The ability to perform a given task.
  • Autonomy. The freedom to choose a desired activity.
  • Relatedness. A sense of resonating or connecting with the activity.

It is often said that an intrinsically motivated person needs no motivation to get something done. While intrinsic motivation is arguably the most powerful variety, the key challenge lies in sustaining it for the long haul. To help with this, we need to create an environment that provides (Sugarman 2011) clients with the ongoing challenge of mastering tasks or activities. Playing golf is a great example: It’s easy to learn the game, and to make good progress, but mastery remains a lifetime challenge.

Novelty and variety are musts for sustaining intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, we avoid pain to seek pleasure, and the more pleasurable an experience is, the greater the chance we will want to repeat it.

Table 1. The Motivation Continuum

It’s important to note the role of willpower in people’s ability to stick to an exercise regimen. Willpower fuels our self-control. In fact, willpower is measured by how much glucose the brain uses to sustain a given behavior or task. The more willpower a task demands, the more glucose gets used up. It has been well documented that people’s self-control degrades when the brain runs out of food (Gailliot et al. 2007). Table 1 demonstrates how much willpower is required for each type of motivation. If we recognize that most people use a great deal of willpower every day, we see that the less willpower they need for exercise, the better.

Tapping into our clients’ extrinsic and intrinsic motivations is vital to achieving maximum exercise adherence. No single form of motivation should be used exclusively, but the more intrinsically motivating we make our exercise programs, in addition to employing autonomous extrinsic motivation strategies, the more powerful agents of change we can become for our clients.

Play for Those Who Prefer Not to Compete

For clients who do not enjoy the idea of competing and pushing their bodies to new limits, try these other forms of play, as described by the National Institute for Play (ww.nifplay.org).

  • Object play. In a gym setting, object play is ideal for clients who enjoy using many new exercise tools that are nontraditional, or who like using traditional tools (like dumbbells) and finding new ways to use them. By offering a variety of the latest types of exercise equipment and designing exercise routines around them, you can create an ideal jungle gym for those who enjoy object play.
  • Social play. This is ideal for anyone who hates to exercise solo. With its opportunities for social interaction, camaraderie or simply a sense of belonging or connection with others, social play provides the perfect atmosphere for the client who is a social butterfly. Try to create exercise routines that involve two or more people working together to achieve a given task as opposed to everyone working out by themselves in a group atmosphere.
  • Creative play. Creative play is ideal for clients who want to think outside of the box when it comes to exercise. They are less worried about achieving an extrinsically motivated outcome and more focused on searching out and creating ways to have fun with movement. They prefer nontraditional exercise environments and become intrinsically motivated when you give them the power to create their own exercises or routines.
Table 2. Challenge Play and the Motivation Continuum

Challenge play can fit anywhere on our motivation continuum, depending on the client. Challenge play usually employs competitive games, and clients who do not enjoy competition may find competitive play a controlled extrinsic motivator. Alternative types of play are a better fit for noncompetitive personalities. Table 2 describes the psychological needs that must be met to make challenge play intrinsically (versus extrinsically) motivating.


Brown, S., & Vaughan, C. 2009.Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Avery.
Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. 2000. The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11 (4), 227–68.
Gagne, M., & Deci, E.L. 2005. Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331–62.
Gailliot, M.T., et al. 2007. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (2), 325–36.
Haskell, W.L., et al. 2007. Physical activity and public health: Updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation, 116 (9), 1081–93.
Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. 2000a. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25 (1), 54–67.
Ryan, RM., & Deci, E.L. 2000b. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55 (1), 68–78.
Sugarman, R. 2011. Engaging and Retaining Clients in Healthy Behaviour Change: A Guide to Motivation for Personal Trainers and Coaches. Digital publication: Molten Mango.
Sutton-Smith, B. 2001. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Vansteenkiste, M., et al. 2004. Motivating learning, performance, and persistence: The synergistic effects of intrinsic goal contents and autonomy-supportive contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87 (2), 246-60.

Derrick Price, MS

Derrick Price MS, CPT, PES, CES has been active on many levels in the fitness industry for over 8 years. He holds a MS in Exercise Science and Health Promotion with an emphasis on injury prevention and performance enhancement from the California University of Pennsylvania where he has also spent time as an Adjunct Faculty member teaching courses in Exercise Program Design. Aside from personal training at the acclaimed Function First in San Diego, CA, Derrick also is a Master Trainer for ViPR, Technogym, Core-Tex and Power Plate. He began his educational career as a Master Instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine and has since moved on to become a Faculty Member for the Personal Training Academy (PTA) Global. Derrick currently resides in San Diego with his wife Laura where they enjoy many outdoor activities such as hiking, golf, disc golf and a variety of other sports

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