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Grid of images from four fitness games (left top to bottom right) Beat Saber, Pistol Whip, The Climb, and Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: various

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How I use video games to lose weight and feel fit

There are more options than ever to gamify your workout

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve tried just about every way there is to lose weight.

I’ve put my palate through the wringer, trying out dozens of fad diets that were a chore to commit to. I’ve kept inconsistent schedules at the gym and with work-out-from-home infomercial programs. Despite my best efforts to stick to a cohesive plan, I’ve ended up finding the best success through an unconventional method: video games.

In the heyday of Dance Dance Revolution at arcades and at home, I spent untold hours stomping flashing arrows. The mix of music, community, and faux-dancing was irresistible. The combination helped me hit all my fitness goals. I felt and looked great.

But as arcades began falling out of favor, and I became older and busier, I stopped being as active. I tried exploring other ways to stay fit, like weightlifting, rock climbing, and yoga apps on my phone, but I could never stay engaged with them. So in recent weeks, I decided to go back to the method of being active that worked for me before: playing video games.

I’ve been experimenting with several games and platforms that have helped me get moving every day. My goal has been to find games that are physically demanding, but not so much that playing them feels like “working out.” Between the Oculus Quest, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One, I now have a library of tools at my disposal that I look forward to when it’s time to get active.

If you’re looking for games to help you get up and move, here are some recommendations based on what I’m currently playing, how they encourage me to be more active, and why you should try them.

Oculus Quest

I’m not alone in discovering how fun it is to use virtual reality to get your butt out of a chair. I love the engulfing nature of VR, as it makes it easy to focus on one thing at a time, instead of how easily distracted I get at the gym. Having sound, music, and gameplay work together to monopolize my attention is a great way to keep me engaged. With my headset on, I get so focused I don’t realize I’m sweating until I stop to grab a sip of water.

There are a lot of choices for VR headsets, but I was immediately drawn to the Oculus Quest. Since it doesn’t require being tethered to a PC, I was able to enjoy more freedom of movement while playing one of my favorite games, Beat Saber.

In the past, I’ve mentioned how Beat Saber is one of the best games of the last decade because all it takes is less than three minutes to show off what VR gaming is capable of. The title incorporates exciting music tracks — from future bass to, most recently, Green Day — and has me slashing at colored blocks like a disco Jedi.

Beat Saber - a still from gameplay depicts a player slashing blocks with their sabers Image: Beat Games

As songs play, blocks marked with directions fly at me, and I have to swipe at them in the proper orientation to the beat of the music. The result can feel like a wild mix of cheerleading, vogueing, and raving. The dancelike gameplay and precision execution are so pleasantly distracting, it doesn’t feel like working out.

Beat Saber can feel like an intense upper body workout when the game is cranked up to its Expert difficulties, however. To make my experience more fun, I exclusively play on the Hard setting instead. In that mode, songs aren’t too complex to play along to, which lets me dance around more and incorporate more of my body into the game.

You should try Beat Saber if:

  • Music naturally makes you get up and move
  • You want something that has different difficulty levels you can grow with
  • You like the idea of buying new music packs to keep the experience fresh
Two boxing gloves float in space, ready to hit targets in BoxVR Image: FitXR

When I want to challenge myself in VR, I load up BoxVR, which is more of an interactive fitness app than a game. It shares similarities with Dance Dance Revolution, but instead of stepping on arrows to the beat, I’m shadowboxing preset punching routines to a playlist of songs.

Each set of activities has me throwing jabs, hooks, and uppercuts at a series of colored orbs that fly at me in a set pattern based on the music. There are also bits of bobbing, weaving, and squats thrown in to help the workout target the whole body. Every so often, I’m even asked to switch my footing to balance the experience further. The structure is a bit more rigid than a traditional rhythm game, but sometimes I like that.

I can set the length of the session I want to participate in, and BoxVR offers up a range of premade training programs based on how much time you want to put in. Each routine is designed by different trainers and offers unique soundtracks to punch to. I can even track fitness essentials like an estimate of calories burned right inside the game, which is helpful if I forget to put on my fitness tracker.

I’d never shadowboxed before playing BoxVR, and after my first session, I gained a very healthy respect for how intense it can be. However, because of how challenging it is, I can never do sessions longer than 30 minutes as my Quest becomes soaked in sweat. Even with my VR Cover, which does a better job at wicking sweat than the default cover, I still cut sessions to around half an hour.

Check out BoxVR if:

  • You want an experience that’s more like a fitness class
  • You want to work up a sweat
  • You want something that tracks your fitness activity natively

Other Oculus Quest games

While Beat Saber and BoxVR are my go-to games for working up a sweat, there are two titles I like to switch to if I want to play something that feels more like a game and less like a dedicated workout.

Image: Crytek

I used to rock-climb regularly, and I’ve been enjoying how The Climb pares down the experience into something more casual. It does a great job of simulating the experience of bouldering, the form of rock climbing where you scale walls without the aid of ropes. Real-life bouldering is challenging and, when done properly, is a full-body workout. The Climb’s simplified gameplay offers up the same experience, without the intensity.

Since the Quest has no way to track my feet, I spend my time focusing on where to place my hands while climbing in the game. It doesn’t replicate the activity perfectly, but I found that it still manages to deliver the same slow, considered, and enjoyable challenge of rock climbing without all the effort (or the fear of falling).

A floating gun aims at a large number of enemies standing in a red landscape Image: Cloudhead Games

When I want to amp things up, I play Pistol Whip. It’s is a rhythm-based shooter, and playing it feels like blasting your way through a music video. Each stage is on rails and moves you through abstract locales where enemies pop up and try to take shots at you.

This disco hayride through a shooting gallery even gives you a better score if you hit your enemies on the beat. It’s a wonderful design that always gets me dancing and shooting to its hard electronic soundtrack like John Wick at a nightclub. There’s also a lot of ducking, dodging, and — true to its name — pistol-whipping to boost the amount of physical effort you put in.

Ring Fit Adventure

One of the fitness games I was most excited to try out was Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure. When I first saw it, it appeared to be something that would disguise the monotony of working out in the form of a compelling RPG.

Years ago, I’d tried Nintendo’s previous workout-adjacent title, Wii Fit, but the game’s futuristic balance board ended up gathering more dust than I hoped. While I rushed to get Wii Fit on its release date, I quickly grew disenchanted with it. It felt more like an in-home fitness class than something cheery and fun, like I would expect from Nintendo.

The company’s latest fitness game yet again combines a funky accessory to sweat along with, but this time, it partners its approach with an RPG-like package that has clicked with me. In Ring Fit Adventure, I take on the role of a fit hero who travels throughout a workout-focused world where I need to stop a ripped dragon. To defeat it, I have to bust out squats, chest presses, yoga moves, and more. It sounds a lot like a traditional workout, but there’s so much going on that it ends up being more fun than it seems in writing.

Screen image of woman running through a landscape from Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

To track my workout, I make use of the Switch’s unique motion controllers and Ring Fit Adventure’s key accessory, the Ring-Con. By inserting one of my system’s Joy-Cons into the rubbery ring controller — and another in a leg strap that gets wrapped around my left thigh — I can control the entire game and have it track my movements.

The Ring-Con’s flexible body is designed to be pushed and pulled for resistance training. It looks flimsy, but generates a surprising amount of resistance. The Joy-Con attached to your thigh tracks more cardio-focused activities like jogging in place and squats, and even when you get down for planks. In tandem, both Joy-Cons can track dozens of different workouts that defy expectations.

As I travel across the game’s world, which can take weeks or months to complete, I use the moves my Joy-Con tracks to defeat enemies and complete minigames. Ring Fit Adventure is set up to encourage me to use a whole array of movements when playing, by turning each session a decent full-body workout. Most sessions take about half an hour to complete, and the game always asks me if I’m up for playing longer or want to call it quits for the day. It also encourages pre- and post-workout stretching, which no other game I’ve played has done.

While Ring Fit Adventure is the most workout-centric thing I’ve been playing recently, it doesn’t feel like a chore. Coming back to it day after day is just like returning to an RPG. There’s the main quest I’m eager to learn more about, side quests that offer up rewards, and hours of the game yet to play. It just so happens that enjoying my time with it requires a bit of sweat on my end.

You might enjoy Ring Fit Adventure if:

  • You like the idea of gamification to help form a workout habit
  • You’re interested in building a bit of muscle instead of just cardio
  • You want an experience that won’t feel the same each time you play it

Just Dance 2020 on Xbox One

Dancing has always been one of the most reliable ways I’ve gotten physical activity. But now my days of faux-dancing on a Dance Dance Revolution machine and going to nightclubs are behind me. Instead, I’m learning how to dance again with Just Dance 2020 on the Xbox One with a Kinect.

Just Dance 2017 Image: Ubisoft

The Just Dance series has been around since 2009, and while I tried playing it on the Wii and the PlayStation 4, holding a Wiimote or Move controller while dancing always felt strange to me. It wasn’t until I started playing it on an Xbox One with a Kinect last year that I finally fell in love with the series.

Using the Kinect camera, Just Dance 2020 tracks my movements precisely. It checks to make sure I’m doing the proper choreography for each of its dozens of songs. I follow along to the moves I see the dancers doing on screen, and I do my best to match them perfectly. Since I’m watching real dancers, and not digital avatars, it’s much easier to mimic their moves. I’m scored on how well I replicate their performance, and Just Dance tallies my score and ranks me against every other player throughout the world.

It’s been years since I’ve shown off my dance moves, but Just Dance 2020 rekindles a lot of the muscle memory I built up over the years. I love that the time spent playing Just Dance and working up a sweat can be transferred to a real dance floor if I’m so inclined.

Just Dance 2020 is great if:

  • You want to work up a sweat while learning how to dance
  • You like competing indirectly with others
  • You want to take the skills you learn in-game into the real world

What’s right for you?

I’m not a fitness professional, but I do have one piece of advice that will help you make a smart choice: Do whatever you can stick to.

What you do to stay active isn’t as crucial as how consistently you stay active. Getting up and moving should be a good habit you engage in for yourself. If you struggle to find a routine that works for you, experiment with several until you find one you can do regularly.

If the idea of working out feels like a chore, approach getting active in a more casual way. I’m exploring options that I find fun and can’t wait to play at the end of a long day of work. I look forward to working up a sweat with these games, which is a far cry from how I felt waking up at 6 a.m. to go to the gym.

These games, even in tandem, may not be enough to be the equivalent of having a consistent gym schedule and a healthy diet. For now, though, I’m enjoying myself and rediscovering how fun it is to be active.