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screen grab from Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure with purple monster Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

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Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure removed the toxicity from my workouts

I changed how I thought about fitness, which changed how I think about myself

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The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated drastic changes to our daily routines to keep ourselves and others safe.

For many of us, the inability to actually go out and get to the gym has been a drain on both our physical and mental health. Regular exercise can be therapeutic, from its positive effects on the body to the release of mood-lifting endorphins. It also serves as a healthy way to break up the daily routine.

Enter Ring Fit Adventure, Nintendo’s most recent foray into the fitness genre. The game combines pilates, yoga, cardio, and strength training with mechanics from role-playing games, tasking you with performing squats, back presses, and core-blasting yoga poses in order to defeat enemies and level up.

But there’s something else that’s special about Ring Fit Adventure, something unique that sets it apart from most other exercise programs (with the possible exception of a personal fitness program developed in collaboration with a trainer). Ring Fit Adventure is unafraid to grapple with what fitness actually means, and in doing so, it actively pushes back against the toxic elements of exercise culture.

It does so, most effectively, through its central villain.

My own worst enemy

Nintendo released Ring Fit Adventure to an overwhelmingly positive reception. But the company couldn’t have foreseen that six months later, the game and hardware would be in such high demand that eBay and Amazon scalpers would charge double (or triple!) retail price to folks desperate for a convenient at-home workout while their gym is closed. Luckily, I pre-ordered the game — I knew I’d love it.

Exercise has been a huge part of my life for 15 years. I grew up overweight, and was bullied for it. I began going to the gym regularly starting in high school because I thought that if I got thinner, if I could fit into a standard large-size T-shirt, the bullying would stop. I definitely slimmed down enough to fit into smaller clothes, but that didn’t stop the bullying. Not from other kids, but more crucially, not from myself.

I have set and reached multiple significant fitness goals in the years since then. I’ve trained to the point that I finish a 5K run in less than 25 minutes. Earlier this year, I took part in a fitness regimen where I performed over 100 pull-ups daily for months. I work out at least six times per week. The accomplishment I’m most proud of came five years ago, when I transformed my body dramatically by shedding around 70 pounds in the span of a year and a half.

I don’t say any of this to brag. I say it to underscore the fact that none of this work has convinced me that my body is anything other than ugly.

My childhood left me with severe body dysmorphia, meaning it’s nearly impossible for me to see the transformation my body has gone through, since I’m so focused on my physical flaws. Those flaws may be real, but just as often, they come from a warped perception of my own body and how it looks.

Body dysmorphia is a strange thing to explain, since everybody experiences it differently. It prevents me from trusting my own perception of myself, which leads me to seek validation from people close to me, or, more worryingly, from a scale or an item of clothing. If the number on the scale isn’t where I want it to be or if my clothes fit a little bit differently, it sends me into a spiral, a word that I — and many others who suffer from mental illness — use to describe the way self-hatred can compound at any time, and create a sort of vortex that feeds itself.

It’s very difficult to see this coming, and it’s even harder to climb out on your own once you’re in the spiral. The voice that causes these spirals, that tells me I’m worthless and ugly, is unshakable, no matter how much I work out or how many fitness goals I hit. What I actually look like, how fast I am, and how strong I am are all irrelevant. The voice is insatiable, and unrelenting.

My workout routine is an attempt to outrun myself, to get lean and fast enough that I can shake off my trauma and the feelings of shame about my body — the feelings that were seemingly cast in cement when I was a child. But that’s work for a shrink, not a trainer or the gym.

It’s not a trained therapist, of course, but this is where Ring Fit Adventure helped to undo some of my own unhealthy ideas about how I was getting into shape, and helped to reshape how I viewed the progress I was making. I was especially struck by how much of myself I saw in Ring Fit Adventure’s final boss when I finally completed the storyline. My enemy, in the game and in my life, was right there, and that forced me to see myself much more clearly than I had in years.

The main enemy in the game’s adventure mode is a hyper-buff dragon in a singlet named Dragaux.

a buff dragon flexes for the camera in Ring Fit Adventure
He certainly looks like he’s in pretty good shape.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

His design bears mentioning, because at first blush, it doesn’t seem to make much narrative sense. His muscles are exaggerated to the point of hilarity, with barn-sized pecs, cheese-grater abs, tree-trunk quads, and neck muscles ripped directly from a 1998 home-run-race-era Mark McGwire.

You’ll face off with Dragaux multiple times in “fit battles” over the course of the game, where you chip away at Dragaux’s health bar by working out with the included plastic ring and leg strap, performing a variety of exercises. Of course, assuming the player doesn’t get too gassed doing squats or run out of health-replenishing smoothies, they’ll overcome Dragaux every time with enough practice and work.

So why not have the antagonist be some sort of demon that represents lethargy, procrastination, or bad eating habits? Better yet, why not have monsters representing all three? If the goal of the game is to get shredded, why are we fighting against an enemy who represents our own ideal selves (except with wings and a tail)?

It has to do with what the game is actually trying to do, versus what we’re used to seeing from fitness programs.

Functional Fitness

Ring Fit Adventure’s adventure mode is littered with fitness tips and suggestions designed to make it easier to stick to an exercise regimen. The game will encourage you to cool down for the day after about 20 minutes of active exercising, so you’re ready and rested for the next day’s workout.

Tips pop up with suggestions during warm-ups and cool-downs, offering advice on how to plan a healthy diet, how to stretch effectively, and how to integrate fitness into daily activities like cleaning, cooking, or walking to the grocery store. The game strongly encourages you to set goals that are measurable and focused on what your body can actually do, not on any external number or the ephemeral whims of how clothing decides to fit from one day to the next.

This represents a gigantic tonal shift from what most people think of as “fitness.” Ring Fit Adventure actively pushes back against using body weight as a measurement of fitness — an opinion echoed by many fitness experts over the past decade — telling the player that weighing yourself is optional, and not very important in the scheme of things. The game pushes you to choose goals based on amazing things you can train your body to do, such as running a 5K, climbing a particularly tricky rock wall, or easily lifting a 250-pound Saint Bernard and cradling it like a baby in order to more effectively tell him what a good boy he is.

Ring Fit Adventure gives the player a note to take a rest
Too much exercise can be as painful as too little, and vice versa.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

These goals are all centered around functional fitness, meaning that working toward them not only trains your body to perform feats that you couldn’t do before, but also helps make daily activities easier. It’s never purely about losing weight, especially since muscle is heavier than fat. If you’re losing fat but gaining muscle, your weight may actually go up, even if how you look and what you can do have both radically changed as you’ve gotten more fit.

Ring Fit Adventure focuses instead on upgrading what your body is capable of. If you can achieve all the things the game asks of you as it increases in difficulty, challenging you beyond your previous limits, you must necessarily be in pretty good shape. Or at least better shape!

The number on the scale and your personal feelings about what’s in the mirror don’t really get to have much say in it; if you can physically do things you couldn’t physically do before, you are moving in the right direction. Your weight may stay the same, or even go up, but you can do more. You’re getting in real shape, and although what that healthy shape is for you may be different from what you were expecting at first, you’ll be getting fitter and healthier along the way.

The game also encourages you to actively listen to your body to avoid injury or overtraining. Characters and pop-up tips will ask you if you’re feeling thirsty, hungry, or sore, and will encourage you to either take a break or stop working out altogether if you don’t feel up to exercising. Pushing through the pain is key in certain workouts, sure, but Nintendo is playing the long game here by trying to improve your entire lifestyle, not just your weight or ability to lift heavy things.

Nintendo expertly strikes a balance between encouraging you to push yourself beyond your limits and reminding you to be kind to your body and listen to it when it’s telling you to stop. The game wants you to be healthy and happy, not just to lose weight or look better.

Which brings us back to Dragaux

You’ll learn a lot about Dragaux from your traveling companion Ring over the course of Ring Fit Adventure’s 23 main worlds. They’ll tell you that Dragaux used to be good-natured, with a dream of bringing fitness to the masses by opening training stadiums across the land.

But something changed, and the dragon became self-obsessed, calling upon an evil “dark influence” that preys on other people’s weaknesses to increase his own strength. That dark influence manifested itself as a hazy purple aura that spread across the world, and it’s the player’s job to stop the force of people’s insecurities before everyone succumbs to self-hatred, lethargy, or evil.

Later on, Dragaux betrays and alienates even the people he has brainwashed into joining his quest for world domination, absorbing their powers and casting them aside in an effort to get even stronger. Yet despite the fact that the dark influence is supposed to mask his weaknesses and make him stronger, Dragaux still spirals into self-hatred whenever he’s beaten, berating himself for being too weak to win. His accomplishments are never enough.

Sound familiar?

This culminates in a final boss battle that was one of the most challenging full-body workouts I’ve ever had. Even though Ring Fit Adventure is generous enough with recovery items, experience boosts, and power-ups that the player shouldn’t be in any danger from Dragaux himself, it’s a battle of attrition. The game pits the player against their own willpower, and almost dares them to give up — there’s a classic “this isn’t even my final form” transformation after the player drains Dragaux’s health bar for the first time.

a woman in exercise gear holds a yoga pose with the Ring-Con while playing Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure
Battling your literal and figurative demons never looked so inviting!
Photo: Nintendo

The battle spotlights every major muscle group with over-the-top Dragon Ball Z-style power clashes, forcing the player to hold squats, overhead presses, yoga poses, and ab workouts for exhaustingly long lengths of time. After the player ultimately prevails — if they’re able to do so — the dark influence is removed from Dragaux and the world at large. If they don’t? They can take a rest, pick themselves up, and keep trying until they’re strong enough to win.

Dragaux addresses the player and Ring directly after his climactic defeat, explaining how things got so twisted. Despite his hilariously exaggerated musculature, Dragaux is extremely self-conscious, and always thought of himself as being weak. He was embarrassed by his body. His dysmorphia caused him to spiral just like I do, eventually landing him in a place where he was convinced his body was unacceptable and worthless on its own. This led him to accept the dark influence, because he thought it would allow him to get stronger, find worth outside of himself, and quiet that voice.

Only, it didn’t, of course. That’s not the way it works.

The last scene that plays before the credits roll explains what the dark influence actually is: It’s like a “virus that spreads to anyone with a weakness in their heart” that masks physical and mental struggles without actually helping to fix them.

This scene is an explicit acknowledgment that fitness isn’t a way to run from weaknesses or insecurities. Just the opposite — the best way to get stronger both mentally and physically through a fitness program is to identify those weaknesses and face them head-on. Earlier in the game, the player meets characters poisoned by the dark influence, and is tasked with freeing them from it by forcing them to face their problems with self-image, their reluctance to trust others, their self-inflicted loneliness, and their bitter jealousy.

It’s a through-line that’s been there for the entire game, and the finale pulls the curtain back on it completely, spelling out the message to the player in detail just in case they missed it up to this point. But the message isn’t exactly subtle: You don’t just need to work out more to get healthier; you have to change how you think about yourself, fitness, and the power of your own body.

Running toward progress

There are toxic elements in exercise culture — from questionably aspirational fit-fluencers to denial-heavy diets to miracle products and scams promising results without hard work — that exacerbate and prey on mental health struggles, instead of giving people the tools to deal with the struggles themselves.

The fact that Ring Fit Adventure unapologetically makes insecurity and mental pain the major enemy in its story forces players to grapple with their own definition of what fitness actually is, or should be. Fitness isn’t a number on a scale, and it’s not a clothing size. It’s about training your body to do a little bit more than it could before. It’s not just about looking good; it’s about feeling good, and doing new things with your body.

Framing fitness in this healthier, more sustainable way has allowed me to be more patient with myself and my body. I no longer spiral into self-hate if I have to miss a workout for some reason. I’m noticing myself smiling at my own image in the mirror more — not just because I think I’m getting more attractive, but because I know I’m getting stronger.

How do I know? I can do things I struggled to do before. I’m thinking about how much easier certain exercises are getting, and how much longer I can run without stopping.

But that’s secondary to the real payoff: the fact that though the voice of self-hatred is still there, it’s a whole lot less talkative now. That’s it, but it’s a huge thing. I feel better about myself and my body. I’m motivated to push my limits even further — not because there’s something wrong with my body, but because I want to give back to it. It’s a gift I’m giving myself.

I’m running toward progress, not away from pain. All it took was a video game to show me the difference.

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