Combining exercise and gaming can help build muscle – Here's what it's all about

Despite their reputation, video games could be the best way to stay active and get stronger

Virtual reality boxing workout
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Some people enjoy the challenge of intense exercise, but wouldn't it be better if workouts were more fun? Thankfully, new research into exergaming, which combines gaming and physical activity, found it could be the key to getting stronger if the gym isn't for you.

Traditionally, picking up a set of the best adjustable dumbbells and learning how to lift weights was the only sure-fire way to build lean muscle. And while it can be enjoyable to train like this, we're starting to find more entertaining ways.

According to a recent study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, strength-focused exergaming is just as effective at working your muscles as standard resistance training programs.

The researchers recruited 10 college-age men and analyzed their muscle activation and enjoyment during a 30-minute cable resistance workout. But notably, the participants used a virtual reality headset to play a game that incorporated the exercises.

The game was "similar to traditional tower defense, a subgenre of strategy video games, where the goal is to defend a player's territories or possessions by obstructing/eliminating the enemy attackers."

As the players had their eyes covered, the machine's handles automatically adjusted based on the current exercise, so they were easy to find. The software also came with a progression algorithm to adjust the weight based on the player's data like rep time and power.

After each session, the gamers completed a survey to see how they found the workout. Not only did the researchers discover that the exergaming session had similar muscle-building effects as regular resistance training, but the players enjoyed it, despite finding it challenging.

What is exergaming?

The Wii Fit, a game for the Nintendo Wii console, was released in 2007. You'd plug the console into your TV, step onto the Wii Balance Board, and control a virtual character by moving your weight around on the board.

The game was designed to help families exercise at home and included yoga and strength training exercises. There was also the more light-hearted Wii Sports, where you could stand up with the controller and play virtual tennis, baseball, bowling, golf, and boxing.

They were popular, too, as Nintendo sold over 100 million copies of the games. But it didn't abandon exergaming with the Wii, as with these Ring Fit Adventure deals, you can pick up a modern reimaging for the Nintendo Switch without breaking the bank. 

Although the genre's roots stretch back to 1982, it's only been over the past decade that the tech has become available and affordable enough for it to really take off.

More recently, the smartphone game Pokémon Go has been another exergaming success. After downloading the app, the game uses your phone's camera to bring digital characters into the real world.

Person playing Pokemon Go

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It is inspired by Pokémon's tagline, "gotta catch 'em all." As you explore the streets around you, Pokémon appear on-screen, and the aim is to collect all 700 creatures. Bringing Nintendo's popular franchise to the real world has encouraged people to stay active and have fun.

Researchers even explored the game's effect, with one study looking at the impact on mothers and their young children. The team gave the participants one of the best fitness trackers to keep tabs on how active the gamers were.

By the end of the study period, the Pokémon Go-playing mothers reported twice as much moderate-to-vigorous activity as non-players, totaling almost 47 minutes of movement each day.

The main goal of exergaming is to make working out enjoyable and exciting so that people want to stay active. But it's not going to be suitable for everyone, and many of us find music to be a great motivator instead.

It's less equipment-heavy, too, as all you need is your phone and a set of the best workout earbuds to get started. These headphones are well-suited for all exercise styles and stay firmly in place even during intense training.

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.