Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Technology and the Psychology of Physical Fitness

Some day, hopefully not too far distant, simple drugs or procedures will provide the health and cosmetic benefits of physical fitness without the dieting and exercise. And some day, perhaps not long after that, these primate bodies will become obsolete entirely.

Until that time, we must cope. Unfortunately, modern civilization enjoys the dubious—even ludicrous—distinction of excelling in medicine while neglecting bodily maintenance. It’s like a world where the auto mechanics are practically godlike, but nobody can seem to keep their oil changed regularly.

The problem is not that scientifically researched diets and workout regimens are ineffective, but that so few of us are able to stick with them.

Our overweight society is, fortunately-if-slowly, moving past the fallacious view of obesity as a moral failing. Losing weight is just plain hard on many levels, and the psychological one is the hardest of all.

A miracle pill that causes immediate weight loss might be very efficient, but it would be no more effective than a miracle pill that grants people the willpower to eat right and exercise. Frankly, I would prefer the latter, despite the extra time required, since presumably that extra willpower could be applied to other ambitions.

The gold standard of weight-loss programs, as with drugs, ought to be careful studies that compare the end results of a study group with a control group. How much weight did group A lose and keep off, compared to group B? The pragmatic, fair researcher will not exclude those who quit early from group A from the data, though for publicity reasons weight-loss programs brave enough to do studies at all will often do just that.

In these cases, the baby has been thrown out in lieu of the bathwater. Pretty much any program where calories are significantly reduced and physical activity is significantly increased will result in weight loss. The proportion of subscribers who stick with the program is, in fact, the variable most worth tracking.

The question I am most interested in addressing right now is this: How might we use today’s technology to help people overcome the psychological obstacles to maintaining their bodies? While there is probably much to be said about food, today I’m going to focus solely on exercise.

I think it can be helpful to start by considering if there are any groups of people who, despite living in modern, western comfort, remain physically fit for years or decades at a time. There are. They are called athletes.

An athlete is different from someone who is merely physically fit. In an athlete, the fitness is merely a means to a competitive end. I won’t deny that there are some tough individuals out there able to make themselves run lap after lap, week after week, year after year, with no carrot in front of them except their own good health. But I’ll bet there are fewer of them than people think. Most solitary exercisers are competing for something, and they know it. They are chasing the carrots of wooing potential mates, thwarting rivals for those mates, or the challenge of beating their own best performance.

But these closet athletes are probably outnumbered easily by those who play competitive sports. “Competitive” need not mean league play, either, but rather any situation where a participant can be said to win or lose. Competitive sports dangle so many carrots and flashing trinkets in front of the players that they have an impressive power to overcome the psychological resistance to physical exertion.

Perhaps most importantly, the player is distracted from the discomfort of exercise by the mental and emotional demands of the game. Similarly, the player wants the closure of completing each quarter, inning, lap, etc., and is unlikely to stop in the middle just because he or she is getting a little winded. Players may also be interacting heavily with other team members, an additional distraction bringing the added impulse to not let the team down by stopping short. The desire to impress one’s teammates or trounce one’s opponents even leaks out between the games, helping drive players to train independently during their free time. The player-athlete doesn’t give a hoot about physical fitness. The player-athlete just wants to excel, and win.

So if sports make physical fitness a non-issue, why don’t more people participate? There are plenty of logistical reasons: scheduling issues, equipment costs, facility costs, climate incompatibility. But once again, the chief impediments are psychological. People want to excel, and if they feel they will never be competitive with their peers in a sport they like, they will probably never get into it. Likewise, if they think they could be competitive only after years of training, they are unlikely to bother. And there are many who have simply been bored to tears by every sport they’ve ever been exposed to.

How can technology transform those who are disinclined to sports into athletes? By creating exercise environments filled with distractive engagement and situations demanding closure; environments where any player, novice or expert, can feel competitive; environments that provide, measure and show each player their performance improvements from one day to the next.

The first example I ever recall seeing of this was an arcade game where a player seated at a stationary bike made a virtual flying machine travel from point to point on screen by pedaling. The game seem kind of slow, and I don’t think it ever caught on. But, today we have a nearly ubiquitous workout game to look at: Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), where players step, twist, and jump to the beat on a set pressure pads, as indicated by instructional symbols scrolling in time to the music. (I myself have recently become a DDR convert, but that’s a post for another day.)

DDR, especially in its home console versions, has a lot going for it as a workout device. It’s cheap, storable, and playable (indoors) regardless of the weather. It can be used solo, or with others – even online. But DDR’s biggest advantages are psychological. Mentally taxed by following the stepping instructions, the beat of the music, and the feel of the dance pad, a player is thoroughly distracted into completing whatever outrageously exhausting routine they may have signed up for in selecting a song at a given difficulty level. The game scores and cheerfully comments on each performance in real-time, pushing players on to ever higher scoring combos. After songs, players are scored and graded in ways that let them compare themselves to others or their own prior performances.

But DDR is by no means a total workout solution, and has plenty of disadvantages. Most obviously, the upper body is little-used. And, like any song or video game played solo long enough, it must ultimately become boring. More games are needed, as are more ways for these games to trick their players into gladly working themselves into a fitness frenzy. More competitive games are needed that can accommodate small or large teams of evenly matched player-athletes; more cooperative games are needed that let players work and workout together to pound zombies, terrorists, or tetrads.

I eagerly await a game that affordably and creatively brings full-body aerobic and resistance training into my living room. I suspect I will be waiting a long time. But imagine the possibilities! I want a game where dueling battlemechs charge shields with aerobic exertion while wielding heavy weapons through brute strength. I want a fantasy game where random encounters make me sweat and defeating the boss leaves me sore the next day.

I want the carrots dangling before this sweaty flesh-bag of mine to be rendered in anti-aliased high resolution, with lightning fast frame rates and no less than 64-bit color depth. Is that too much to ask?

Necessary though it may be, I, like most humans, don’t like to exercise. But I do like to play. And I love to win.

Show me a gamer, and I’ll show you an athlete.

We can build him. We have the technology.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.

12:28 AM  

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