Video games are often called instigators of inactivity and listed among the causes of the world’s rising obesity rate. When 33.8% of adults and 17% of children and adolescents in the United States are considered obese (CDC 2010), video games make an attractive target. But there is a lot more to these games than amazing graphics and hyperkinetic action—they also offer powerful lessons for fitness professionals and their clients.

Three years ago, I worked as an associate producer on the development of EA Sports™ Active 2 (a fitness video game for Nintendo® Wii™, Sony® PlayStation® 3 and Microsoft® Xbox® 360 on Kinect). The project opened my mind to a new world of motivational prowess. Video games are designed to keep users intensely focused, highly motivated, creatively engaged and working at high limits of their abilities—immersed in the activity to the point where it is almost impossible to stop playing. Game play engages users through motivating experiences that trigger the release of neurochemicals in the brain, making the experience so pleasurable that it becomes addictive.

These experiences are created through game mechanics and techniques that stem from positive psychology—the study of human flourishing, or how we achieve different kinds of happiness (McGonigal 2011). This is where fitness professionals and game designers converge: both strive to keep people intensely focused, highly motivated, creatively engaged and working at high limits of their abilities! Fitness professionals should therefore consider digging deeper into video games and positive psychology. By mining these areas for motivational techniques, fitness pros might succeed in creating rewarding fitness experiences capable of eliciting the same addictive physiological responses in the brain that video games do.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards

There are lots of ways to be happy, but many positive psychologists agree that true happiness cannot be found. No object, no event, no outcome or life circumstance can deliver real happiness. People have to make their own happiness by working hard at activities that provide their own reward (McGonigal 2011). Positive psychologists distinguish two types of rewards that lead to happiness: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic rewards are materialistic objects obtained to bring wealth, fame and status. People feel good once the reward is acquired, but that feeling is always short-lived. Extrinsic rewards are limited resources, and people who seek them eventually run out of means to obtain them because they ultimately develop a tolerance to the extrinsic reward they are pursuing. They then crave bigger and better things in hopes of achieving the same feeling of happiness. This vicious cycle is common with drug addiction, in that the more a person tries to find an ecstatic “high” outside of the body, the harder and harder it gets. Positive psychologists call this hedonic adaptation, and scientists agree that seeking out extrinsic rewards ultimately sabotages a person’s happiness (McGonigal 2011).

Intrinsic rewards, by contrast, are positive emotions created in the mind when we take on challenging hard work. Intrinsic rewards are the powerful emotions felt when a difficult task is accomplished or a complex problem is solved. Unlike their extrinsic counterparts, intrinsic rewards are renewable resources because the human body can create positive emotions by engaging in challenging, self-motivating tasks.

Positive psychologists call these tasks autotelic activities. The term autotelic is derived from the Greek words auto (“self”) and telos (“goal”) (McGonigal 2011). Autotelic activities trigger the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that generate the most pleasurable, satisfying and meaningful emotions human beings can experience. These epic feelings and positive emotions are the intrinsic rewards of accomplishing challenging tasks.

Physiology of Positive Emotions

Fitness professionals trigger in their clients’ bodies physiological responses that improve cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, body composition and flexibility. They stimulate the physiology of bodily systems to get a response. The physiology of motivation operates in a similar way: the brain must be stimulated to facilitate the release of neurochemicals that create feelings of motivation, pleasure and accomplishment.

When trainers set clients a difficult fitness challenge, such as trying to complete more reps of an exercise in a shorter time interval, their bodies release epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, the excitement hormone that makes humans feel confident, energetic and highly motivated (McGonigal 2011). When trainers suggest that clients motivate themselves by training for a challenging race, like a first 5K or half-marathon, completing the event releases a potent neurochemical cocktail of epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine—an addictive combination that makes people feel satisfied, proud and highly aroused (Bateman 2008).

Examples of this effect in action:

  • When an instructor makes students laugh and smile, their brains are immediately filled with dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. If the instructor laughs and smiles too, the effect is even more pronounced (Berns 2004).
  • When participants finally coordinate and synchronize an exercise movement with others, such as in dance or sports, oxytocin, a neurochemical that causes blissed-out, ecstatic feelings, is released into the bloodstream (Keltner 2009).
  • When people are moved by a powerful story, live performance or sporting event, the vagus nerve is triggered, causing audience members to feel emotionally choked up in their throats and chest. Or the pilomotor reflex of the nervous system is fired up, producing goose bumps or pleasurable chills that make the body’s hairs stand on end (Keltner 2009).

Four Defining Traits of a Game

“Competition + play = hard work + fun” is a quote from Peter Twist, MSc, that has always resonated with me. It bears mentioning here because adding competitive or collaborative activities to fitness programming provides opportunities to earn intrinsic rewards. These activities can be small mini-games that occur in one session, or they can be parts of a larger game that spans a week, a month or a particular training phase. Whatever the duration, any game must incorporate four traits to succeed (McGonigal 2011):

1. The Goal

The goal is the specific target or end result that players or teams are trying to achieve. It provides focus, channels efforts into a single objective and gives players and teams a sense of purpose.

2. The Rules

The rules limit how players and teams can achieve the goal. Without rules, the goal would be too easy to achieve. Rules make the game more challenging and engaging, forcing players and teams to be creative and develop skills, techniques and strategies to achieve the goal. Rules promote creative and strategic thinking, collaboration and teamwork.

3. The Feedback System

The feedback system tells players and teams how close they are to achieving the goal. It provides real-time feedback and motivation to keep on playing; it also signals that the end goal is still possible to attain. Most team sports have a score that tracks total points or goals scored and a time clock that shows how much time is left in the game. The frequency of feedback loops is very important. Moments of triumph should be kept tight to increase the frequency of engagement.

4. Voluntary Participation

“Buy-in” from everyone playing the game is essential in order to establish common ground. Buy-in requires that all participants knowingly and willingly accept the goal, the rules and the feedback systems. Buy-in from trainers, or whoever is administering the game, is also vitally important. These people must be passionate about the game to get buy-in from players.

Working From Inside Out

Just as core musculature should be contracted before the muscles engage in movement, the “motivation musculature”—represented by the brain—should first be stimulated from the inside for best results. An “inside-out approach” to motivation involves activating the brain through challenging opportunities that foster powerful intrinsic rewards, while an “outside-in approach” entails being motivated by external motivators. Like extrinsic rewards, extrinsic motivators (such as new fitness equipment) eventually get stale. At some point, participants tire of them and lose interest. When new equipment is implemented, the programming must use an inside-out approach to keep people engaged.

To truly motivate exercisers, fitness professionals must master the ability to create engaging experiences just as they master the exercises they prescribe. Fitness pros need to consider using the competitive, collaborative nature of games as motivational platforms for generating intrinsic rewards so that positive emotions can flourish. If trainers master the techniques from video games and positive psychology, they will further motivate those they train—and recruit a new population of clients as well.

Implementing the Four Traits of Games

Plank Hold Daily Challenge

The goal. Hold a plank position for as long as possible.

The rules. Maintain technique according to these guidelines:

  • knees off the ground
  • elbows on the mat directly under shoulders
  • core braced and engaged—imaginary line can be drawn from ankles to shoulders

The feedback system. Keep score with measurable data, providing scalable achievements so there is room for improvement.

Total time (seconds) of the plank hold:

  • bronze: 60 seconds
  • silver: 75 seconds
  • gold: 90-plus seconds

Voluntary participation. Create a small ritual like a special handshake or high-five for all players.

Group Training Contest (Points Based)

The goal. Earn the most points over the program’s duration (6 weeks).

Fun opportunities are provided to earn points, both during and outside of workouts.

The rules. Keep it simple; don’t overwhelm the players. For example:

  • Activities must be reported via email by noon Monday in order to get credit.
  • Points are not awarded retroactively.
  • Cheating or submitting false claims results in disqualification.

The feedback system. Keep score of players’ performances, tracking the following:

  • total number of points
  • total number of workouts remaining in program

Use the daily challenge mentioned earlier (plank hold), with points:

  • bronze: 500 points
  • silver: 1,000 points
  • gold: 2,000 points

Create awards for long-term participation:

  • Attend regularly: 1,000 points per session.
  • Attend first workout: 2,000 points (Rookie Award).
  • Attend three group workouts in a row: 3,000 points (Hat Trick Award).
  • Attend group workout where you are the only person who shows up: 2,000 points (Lone Ranger Award).
  • Work out on your own: 1,000 points (Take the Bull by the Horns Award).
  • Complete a new activity: 500 points (Ski Award, Running Award, etc.).
  • Complete an activity with another member: 500 points (Double Trouble Award).
  • Wear the same workout clothes as another member: 500 points (Twins Award).
  • Attend all workouts—100% attendance: 5,000 points (Ironman® Award).

Note: Allow for scalability of different activities (e.g., walk vs. run 20 minutes).

Voluntary participation. Have players voluntarily sign a contract of commitment.

  • Keep point scales high; for example, use 500 points vs. 50 points.
  • Keep things spontaneous. Consider not revealing all rewards at outset of competition.


Bateman, C. 2008. Top ten video game emotions. Only a Game.; retrieved Feb. 3, 2012.
Berns, G.S. 2004. Something funny happened to reward. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8 (5), 193–94.
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2010. U.S. obesity trends.; retrieved Feb. 3, 2012.
Chatfield, T. 2010. Fun Inc.: Why Games Are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business. London: Random House.
Keltner, D. 2009. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (pp. 219–69). New York: Norton.
McGonigal, J. 2011. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin.
Nelson, D.L., & Simmons, B.L. 2003. Eustress: An elusive construct, an engaging pursuit. Research in Occupational Stress and Well-Being, 3, 265–322.

Gerard Recio

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