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Gamification helps increase a person’s step counts, but only modestly

New research shows gamification, exercising in groups and social support helps increase a person’s activity levels, but only modestly.

Gamification is the process of utilizing game elements such as points and levels in nongame contexts. The concept has been popularised by well known wearable brands such as Apple, Fitbit, Garmin and Samsung. The idea is that gamification motivates people to be more active. In the arena of health and fitness, this is becoming a popular research field.


Gamification results in modest activity gains

Published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the latest study was conducted on 180 overweight veterans. The aim of the study was to determine whether gamification and social support would result in increased step counts.

Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets

This was a 12 week study conducted in late 2020, succeeded by a 8 week follow-up period. All participants received a fitness tracker which was set up with a day step goal.

There were three groups each consisting of 60 individuals. The control group only relied on feedback from the wearable. Sixty people in another group were entered into a 12-week game with points and levels and a support partner to help with motivation. The final group had $120 deposited in a virtual account, and lost $10 each time they failed to meet their weekly goal.

The results show that participants in the gamification with financial incentives group showed the biggest progress in terms of step count. This was followed by those entered in the gamification with no financial incentives group. The lowest performers were those in the control group.

That is the good news. But it’s not all good. Unfortunately, the effect for the gamification groups was not sustained in the 8 week follow up period.

This suggests that gamification, particularly with financial incentives, has a modest positive effect on activity levels. At least amongst veterans who are obese or overweight. But in the long-term, these gains are non sustained.


Other studies show more correlation

Other studies have showed more significant benefits of gamification and social support. One of these was also published in JAMA Internal Medicine. This one was conducted by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University School of Medicine.

They looked at 200 adults comprising 94 families. The clinical trial showed participants in gamification had significantly increased step counts during the 12-week period under observation, than the control group.

Over the course of the study, participants tracked daily steps using a wearable device or a smartphone, established a baseline, selected a step goal increase and received daily feedback on progress. Families in the gamification group could earn points and progress through levels based on physical activity goal achievement. The game design was meant to enhance collaboration and support.

Final results showed that families participating in games increased daily step counts by nearly one mile per day (1,661 steps), and achieved daily fitness goals 27% more than families who did not. The study also showed that these increased step counts persisted even after the game ended.

“Our social connections – family members, friends, and even colleagues – can be powerful motivators, but most programs target individuals instead of leveraging these social networks,” said lead author Mitesh Patel.

“Our findings demonstrate how gamification can be designed to harness these social influences to improve health behaviors. Since these relationships are often longstanding, the impact of these interventions has the potential to be long-lasting.”

Unfortunately, this study did not have a follow up period. So we don’t know whether the above gains disappeared over time.

All of this shows that there are modest benefits to gamification, social support and exercising in groups. It does help keep us a bit more active. But more research needs to be done on quantifying the effects among more diverse populations, as well as measures that go beyond simple daily step counts.

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