Gamers like me spend hours levelling up our characters so that they're stronger and faster and can defeat enemies more easily. Why not try that in real life? I realised that I could use this mindset with my health, and was surprised to find that gaming had prepared me to reach my fitness goals.
This article was originally published 30 December 2014.
As a hardcore competitive gamer and lifelong nerd, it's not surprising that by the age of 20, I hadn't once stepped foot in a gym.
I hated exercise. I grew up clumsy and out of shape, and I'd much rather set world records on video games than personal records at the gym. (Guess who was the first person to get to level 50 on Borderlands 2!)
I was too glued to my computer, spending most of my day browsing Lifehacker and forums like Major League Gaming to bother surrounding myself with barbells and treadmill.
But what if exercise were just like video games? Perhaps I could think of myself as a character, levelling up day-by-day and eventually building awesome stats. So that's exactly what I did.
The first week that I stepped foot at the gym, I couldn't even lift the barbell on many exercises. But hey, that's what a Level 1 Warrior is like, right? Fast forward a few years and I've progressed steadily from being completely out of shape to being able to bench press over 300 pounds with ease. As it turns out, the insight I had gained through over a decade of daily video game play directly powered this new gym quest.
Looking back on the journey so far, there have been six main gaming principles that I can connect with my success. I want to share this blueprint in hopes that my experience and mistakes along the way can help other people, especially fellow geeks and gamers.
Start By Levelling Up Your Abilities
The beginning step is one that should come naturally to gamers. Think back to the quests you're given as a level 1 peasant in RPGs. Remember having to "kill five rats in the sewer" or a similar small task? The more complicated tasks and enemies usually don't come until later on, because the player needs some time to get a grasp on how the game works in the first place.
Personally, I started this beginning phase of the adventure with barbell exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses and overhead presses. While there are many options available, think of compound exercises such as these as the quests that give you the more efficient experience points. By using your body as a full unit, you're able to level up multiple body parts at once instead of using more time and effort to reach the same result.
This is a good time to take the easy level-ups while they're there and don't try to rush into things before you're ready. This is also when the game is the most forgiving about wrong choices. Remember, almost everything that you do will quickly progress you towards levelling up. Just like in gaming, every "Level 1" fitness beginner should aim to gain experience at an efficient rate and minimize mistakes.
Choose Your Battles Wisely
After you have levelled up your basic abilities through consistent effort in the gym, you will have more options available to you for the quests later on in the game of fitness. This is a good time to learn that sometimes it's better to fight lots of lower level monsters successfully than to keep dying on the same difficult boss. In fact, high level fitness has more in common with a strategic puzzle game than a brute force beat-em-up.
For example, let's think about someone who has been stuck performing two or three sets of three repetitions on pull-ups for several weeks, and cannot reach rep four. One strategy could be to drop down and perform as many sets of two as possible instead. Even though there are fewer reps per set, a higher total number of pull-ups can be reached in that workout before exhaustion sets in.
This was a realisation that helped me break through this exact plateau early on after months of questing toward my first set of double digit pull-ups. A new adventurer should show determination toward their goals, but it is important to recognise when spending some more time fighting the easier monsters is the key to finally defeating the boss ahead.
Picking your exercises, sets, reps and rest periods correctly every session can ensure consistent progression for you while others stay stuck for months on end. Sometimes completing a quest you were going to skip, like a new personal best on an exercise you do infrequently, can end up unlocking a great unexpected reward.
Never Stop Learning
Here's one area where gamers often fall into a common trap. In a game like World of Warcraft, hitting the highest level of your character is only one aspect of progress. Fitness is the same way.
It is often not until people hit a high level that they realise how many ways they can still practise refining all of their current abilities.
For an experienced weight lifter, it would be easy to talk for hours on end about the small precise details of improving a particular exercise, even though they are performing roughly the same movement as another person.
Even those without advanced fitness goals can make use of this principle. Spending some mental energy to analyse your physical weaknesses, exercise selection, and other variables can produce new improved results for almost the same physical energy. If you find yourself feeling stagnant in your fitness quest for too long, take a step back to look at the details in a new way.
The most difficult gaming challenges require you to go above and beyond the limits of your character to find the most brilliant of strategies. Every time you enter a gym should be viewed as both a time to grind those experience points, but also to refine your skill at playing the game of fitness.
Value The Middle And End Game
Fitness is a lifelong adventure full of quests and achievements. However, like any game, there are going to be slow periods where progression is significantly harder to come by.
This is when the player must learn to appreciate the "end game" phase of fitness. The easy quests are long gone and only the tougher challenges remain. Individual milestones are less easy to identify.
It's common to notice people dropping out of their workout plans at the six-month mark. There are countless people who have have been at the gym seriously for several years and end up getting frustrated with the lack of progress. Some of these people are able to break through this with patience, but most either stay trapped at a plateau or give up on the gym entirely.
Remember, after you hit a certain level in video games, levelling up can be slow. That doesn't mean that you should give up. Gamers should be familiar with this and realise that it's all part of the process. Those who play MMOs or other multi-year video game experiences should have experience dealing with periods of time where nothing feels like it is improving, but the experience points will always add up in the end.
One way I handled this was by simply changing the flow of my workouts. When I found myself burning out after half a year of progressing with only heavy weights, I transitioned to a period of higher repetitions per set and less rest time in between. This unlocks an entirely new set of quests to go after as well. Often this simple detour ends up providing bonus experience points when you return. For example, a few months of progressing in sets of 10-15 reps may directly improve your ability to lift that heavier set of five you were stuck on before.
Stay persistent. Embrace the grind with patience.
Be Proud Of All Progress
Every step forward in fitness is something to be celebrated. Doing five pounds more or one rep more is progress. Just like a player will kill thousands of enemies to reach a big goal, each big gym milestone will require a lot of smaller quests to be completed first. Even if you haven't completed your final goal, these quests will add up. You'll eventually be able to battle that final boss or go on that raid that you've been eying.
No matter what your main goal is or how far you are from it, the focus must always be on progress. This is why it is always great to have a workout log of some sort to track these changes as they happen. Personal bests are a clear sign that your methods are working on some level. Keeping track of progress will also help you form a better understanding of choosing your battles by noting which decisions brought you success.
Experienced gamers have all of the mental skills required to succeed at the highest level, especially in fitness. Use the gaming mindset to level up and get the body you've always wanted.
Join A Guild
You'll remain more motivated and level up more quickly if you join a guild (that is, any fitness community of like-minded individuals) along the way. The guild that you choose is up to you. I joined Fitocracy and made friends there, because there were a lot of gamers like me looking to get fit.
This step is often overlooked in gaming and fitness, but it is one of the most important. Even though ultimately you are the one who has to put in the hard work, having community support helps provide everything from knowledge to motivation. Sometimes a piece of advice from a high level guildmate is just what you need to break through to a new achievement.
Approach your new exercise routine with the same mindset that you've applied to games over the years, and you might be surprised to find that you already have the foresight to plan your fitness goals.