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The Hyper-Competitive, Data-Driven Future of Fitness

Nov 04, 2015
TIME Health
For more, visit TIME Health.

Pick up a smartphone today and you’ll have at your fingertips a snapshot of your own activity: steps taken, sleep logged, calories burned, maybe even your heart rate. Now imagine that data and more is not just on your smartphone but also blasted onto a big screen in your spin class, complete with how hard you're working and how that compares with the guy next to you.

Call it a natural outgrowth of our obsession with data or call it insane, but it's showing up in various forms in boutique fitness chains and at high-end gyms across the country: where people's efforts are cataloged, charted and then emailed in bites of information perfect for sharing on social media. Indeed, these gyms are using people's own analytics—their performance—as a way to motivate (or guilt) them into working out more or working out harder, or both.

Equinox gyms, for instance, recently launched new versions of its cycling class the Pursuit, which hooks up riders with “in-studio gaming and data visualization.” Bikes are synced to a screen that takes up nearly an entire wall of the studio upon which riders can see how fast they’re going, how far they’ve ridden and how they’re doing in relation to their classmates.

The stadium cycling chain Flywheel, meanwhile, syncs gymgoers up to leader boards. They can compete with riders in the same studio as them or compare their results with riders in other locations around the country—or the world. Throughout the classes, the names of the top 10 women and men in the class will flash on the screen. Flywheel also lets you track your progress: your total miles, your average speed, your calories burned and, yes, how you compare to everyone else.

Equinox's app has similar offerings, letting members track their own data in order to share it with trainers. (The app, of course, makes it easy to share your data with the entire world on Facebook, too.)

Other chains are looking to harness health analytics to motivate members. Fitness centers like Orange Theory Fitness, which has classes around the world, and Full Psycle in Chicago, both use heart rate monitors to encourage their gymgoers to hit different heart-rate zones as a way to increase their calorie burn.

This next step in the gameification of fitness already has some people hooked—but some worry it could have some unintended negative effects on others. That's because it's not just about collecting tech specs. It's about competition—in public.

A Competitive Advantage?

Flywheel’s CEO Ed Kinnaly says this trend taps into two different motivating factors: winning against others and beating one's own record. There can be another element at play, too. With Equinox's the Pursuit, for instance, it's not just you versus you, or you versus the person one bike over. Since people are also put on teams, it means their performance affects not only their own success but also that of their teammates.

“Suddenly you’re responsible for someone else,” says Jeffrey Scott, a personal trainer and Equinox fitness manager, who created the Pursuit. “People don’t tend to work less if they know someone else is counting on them.”

The logic behind this is well established. Research suggests that when you think people are evaluating you based on how well you exercise, you work harder. Plenty of other research demonstrates that human behavior changes—usually for the better—when there are other people around to see what you're doing or when people are counting on you.

Add to the mix interaction (social media) and immediacy (data in real-time) and it becomes clearer why this is a fitness fad that could get some people hooked. “The idea is, if a workout is fun, you’ll subconsciously want to go back," says Anthony Wall of the American Council on Exercise. “You won’t even know why you really like it,” he says.

“Videogame [designers] have really got a hold of the addictive nature of ‘If I get a little bit of positive reinforcement, it feeds my endorphins.’ To match it with exercise seems like a logical next step,” says Russell Medberry, a professor of exercise and sports sciences at Colby-Sawyer College.

Researchers are trying to get a handle on how the gameification of fitness—particularly those with virtual and videogame elements to them—affect people, but for now, the jury is out. The research just can't keep up with the technology making this all possible.

So What's the Downside?

One thing is clear: Competition isn't for everyone. One study found that competition can increase motivation for highly competitive individuals, but that for those who are “lowly competitive," this kind of experience can actually have a detrimental effect on the exercise experience. Other research found that competition has different impacts on different people, which "suggests that exergame designers should be cautious in using the element of competition to motivate people to exercise," the study authors say.

Medberry says competition's varying effect on people is an important thing to keep in mind, especially for people who are new to the gym or who are self conscious about their appearance.

“They’re thinking: all eyes are on me if I am making a mistake,” he says. That, in a nation of people who don't exercise enough—two thirds of whom are overweight or obese—can cause trouble if it ever were to scale.

Competition can also impact self esteem and could backfire when it comes to motivation. Instead of feeling driven to work harder, one might feel like they're not good enough. Competitive environments can be destructive for those with low confidence and could be harmful for teens, whose senses of self are still developing.

“Technology is like fire,” says Jonathan Fader, a sports psychologist. “You can use it to cook, but it can also burn your house down." In other words, he says, these classes can, for some people, truly increase physical fitness. "But you have to be careful.”

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