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How fitness video games can help improve your mental well-being

Fitness as a standalone concept — whether someone is running on their own, going to the gym, or just even walking on a daily basis — has overall net positives for each person. The World Health Organization notes that “some physical activity is better than doing none” at all. People see visible, physical benefits from physical activity, including improved health, muscle growth, and improved coordination and balance. And when it comes to fitness video games, those same benefits hold true.

Fitness games have been around since the 1980s in some capacity when early iterations like the Joyboard for the Atari 2600 were first rolled out. But some of the most notable early fitness games that truly saw success come in the form of the arcade hit Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) and Wii Fit. Both games have been positively received and effectively worked in getting players up and moving, be that through dance or more traditional workout methods like yoga and strength training.

Players have been actively gaming for literal decades, reaping the physical benefits that come from dancing, stretching, and cardio-ing their way through fitness titles. And whether you have an established fitness routine or you’re interested in becoming more active, fitness games are a fun and accessible way to get yourself up and moving. But alongside physical effects like building muscle and promoting better sleep, there’s also a connection between fitness games and positive mental health benefits. Good fitness games incorporate a number of unique factors that make them so effective for players who are easily able to find the joy in fitness all over again.

The mental health benefits

Exercise has been found time and time again to have a positive link between mental health and fitness. A 2018 study that looked at survey results from the CDC across several years found that people who exercised saw a 40% drop in self-reported mental health days in comparison to those who didn’t. And for individuals who are playing fitness games, they’re often going to see the mental health benefits that come from regular fitness as well.

Sarah Cannon, a personal trainer and psychological well-being practitioner at Living Well UK, tells Digital Trends, “Exercising can help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety and can improve our mood and overall sense of well-being. It can also help us to feel more energized, improve our self-confidence and self-esteem, help us to sleep better, and improve our motivation. Active gaming may provide players with similar benefits to being physically active in general.”

A shot from Beat Saber's Linkin Park pack, with two blocks being cut in half by the saber.
Oculus VR

Those reduced feelings of stress and improvement in mood are courtesy of the feel-good neurotransmitters known as endorphins, among others, that are released from physical activity. Endorphins are perhaps one of the most well-known mental health benefits that you may see from exercise, whether you take a run around the block or you’re putting the most recent Just Dance installment through its paces. They create a feeling of well-being and help to relieve pain.

Another benefit to active gaming that players are all too familiar with includes goal setting and milestones. In-game milestones usually include achievements for exploring areas of a map, completing certain tasks, and completing daily tasks. These milestones, or achievements, can help create a sense of accomplishment and motivation in players, who may be more inclined to play regularly.

Dr. Gabriela Rodríguez Ruiz, a board-certified bariatric surgeon, offers further insight into the accomplishments and motivation that players can find in active games. “Fitness games can also give players that great sense of accomplishment and pride that comes with achieving something. This sense of achievement can be a powerful motivator to help players stay focused on their goals, which in turn can benefit their overall mental health.”

Ring Fit Adventure Overview Trailer - Nintendo Switch

A great example of an active game that offers players a sense of achievement is Ring Fit Adventure. Unlike its spiritual predecessor Wii Fit, the Switch game is a full-on fitness RPG with everything that you’d expect including monster fights and multiple worlds to explore. RPGs are especially great at giving players built-in goals, and Ring Fit Adventure is no exception. Each level utilizes real-world exercises like squats, leg raises, and jogging in place to get you moving and actively progressing in-game. That sense of progressing, as Dr. Rodríguez Ruiz points out, can help keep players motivated to keep up with their fitness goals — both in-game and elsewhere.

Joy and community in fitness gaming

While players see reduced anxiety and an improvement in focus and mood, active gaming also seems to be a great way to find both joy and motivation in fitness. Fitness routines can sometimes be tricky to stick to, especially if someone isn’t particularly enjoying the routine they’ve made for themselves.

“I, and other health professionals, would agree when we say it’s much easier to stick to a habit and routine when you’re having fun. This is why fitness games can play a great role in helping people stay motivated to reach their physical health goals,” Dr. Rodríguez Ruiz says. “Fitness games often offer an immersive, enjoyable experience that encourages users to be more active and engaged with their workouts. I always tell my patients to find an exercise routine they enjoy because this will make it easier for them to stick with it in the long run.”

3 women in Just Dance 2023 stand close together at the center of the shot, performing a group dance move.

Some of the more immersive fitness games out there include VR titles like the ever-popular Beat Saber, Thrill of the Fight, and Pistol Whip. These titles offer players a wide range of playstyles that can easily fit into their preferred fitness approaches, ranging from virtual cycling and boxing to lower-impact activities like dance, meditation, and yoga. VR titles often place players elsewhere, either within a unique setting or with interesting visuals while they play, something that is always appealing about video games in general. That immersive element can help to break up a fitness routine, putting you outside of the typical gym or at-home setting.

And as Dr. Rodríguez Ruiz pointed out, the immersive fun that players find in fitness games can help them to form a regular fitness habits. That habit might be formed through finding joy in your chosen fitness games, establishing your own goals to stick to, following in-game goals, or even being fueled by the community aspect that some active games contain.

Games like Just Dance 2023, Synth Riders, and Rec Room offer multiplayer options. This opens up the door to a social element for players, which can be a major boost to one’s mental health. Social interactions have been found to be a critical factor in both short and long-term health overall, including one’s mental health. The community element found in many fitness games can offer an additional boost to players, both cutting down on feelings of loneliness and allowing players to find support.

Alexander Legezynski, a REPS-certified personal trainer and founder of West London Personal Training speaks to the importance of this social element. “You have the benefit of playing with other people. There aren’t many workouts where you can compete with somebody on the other side of the world – or your friend from across the street. The social aspect drives performance and can be the clincher in kicking off a sustained fitness habit.”

In connecting with the joy and community that fitness gaming can provide, players can really reap both the physical and mental health benefits of active games. Physical activity you get in while playing your favorite fitness game makes for a fun, effective way to stay active — especially if you’re able to build a habit. And as Cannon points out, “While there are perhaps some forms of exercise that are held in higher regard than others, we must try to remember that any way you can move your body and get your blood pumping is great!”

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Paige Lyman
Freelance writer and journalist
Paige Lyman is a freelance writer and journalist who covers culture and entertainment. She has contributed stories to Digital…
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