We all know that exercise is good for us. One in seven people in the UK are now gym members, and that number is rising. As the fitness industry has grown in recent years, so has the popularity of digital tools that enable us to monitor our progress. Wearable tech such as a FitBit, or mobile apps like RunKeeper or Strava, can record everything from distance to speed and heart rate to calories burned, allowing runners and cyclists to compete with their friends and share their achievements on social media.
However, stats alone aren’t always enough to keep us motivated. Although 38% of New Year’s resolutions involve doing more exercise, statistics from the Fitness Industry Association show that most people who join gyms in January have quit or stopped going after 24 weeks. The UK wastes almost £600 million a year on unused gym memberships. We may have the technology in our smartphones to track and record everything, but what we also need are ways of bringing it to life. How are forward-thinking businesses using data to tell exciting stories that engage sports and fitness fans around the globe?
“When I started out running at university I found it really boring and painful, like a lot of people,” says Adrian Hon, CEO at independent games developer Six to Start, based at Spectrum House in Highgate. “I was surprised that no-one had made a really good game that made running more exciting and more motivating.” Alongside writer Naomi Alderman, Hon conceived Zombies, Run!, an “audio adventure” that casts you, the runner, as one of the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse.
On a typical mission (there are 250 in total), players must collect supplies and outrun zombies while immersing themselves in an unfolding story featuring dozens of characters. Meanwhile, the app tracks your distance and pace, and plays your own music in the background. With more than one million players and more than 40 million kilometres logged online, it is by far the most popular smartphone fitness game ever made.
Hon puts the success of Zombies Run down to a number of factors — including its early launch in 2012 and the sheer quality of writing (Alderman won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction for her novel The Power in 2017). It’s a recipe for success that seems to have been hard to emulate. “People have tried to gamify fitness for the last decade but usually it just doesn’t work. Adding points, levels and badges doesn’t actually make the act of exercise more fun,” he says, noting that fads like the Wii Fit have come and gone over the years. “It takes a lot of good content and good game design.”
Get on yer bike
As well as running, we’re often told to ditch the car or public transport and get on our bikes instead. Apart from the danger posed to cyclists in a city like London, one thing that puts people off cycling is the difficulty of navigating while on two wheels. Having to stop frequently to consult your smartphone is inconvenient and listening to Google Maps’ audio directions in headphones risks making you less aware of your surroundings. What if cyclists could get where they needed to safely and smoothly, while having an adventure at the same time? Workspace customer Beeline, based at The Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey, aims to offer exactly that. The company produces. a stripped-back navigation device for your bike which, rather than guiding you by strict, turn-by-turn instructions, simply shows you an arrow telling you which direction to head in and the distance to your destination. It’s up to you to choose a route. “Rather than being a passenger, you are free to explore, lift your head up and enjoy your surroundings,” says Co-founder Tom Putnam. “The idea is to make navigation more fun, and about the journey.”
There’s nothing to stop you going down a dead end, so you need to keep your eyes open. For the less adventurous, Beeline has a setting that takes you on a prescribed route, similar to Google Maps, but it’s not necessarily quicker. Indeed, in a city like London with a high density of roads, the “exploration” setting gets people to their destination on average 10% quicker than the prescribed routes.
Putnam hopes that by making the experience of cycling more fun, the health benefits will follow. With that in mind, he has recently launched an integration with Strava so that Beeline users can measure their progress if they want to. However, it’s more about the enjoyment. In addition, apps like CycleStreets or Happy Maps maximise the “emotional gain” of a journey by taking you via fragrant flowers or beautiful architecture.
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