The Future of Fitness: Massively Multiplayer Online Training



If you are a serious cyclist or runner, dedicated to your performance goals, then you will likely find yourself riding, running, or lifting indoors at some point during the year. Traditionally, that has been a pretty boring affair that involves staring at a motivational poster on your wall while trying to drown out the sound of your own heavy breathing with some rocking tunes. But lately, there are a bunch of cool apps that certainly make your time on the trainer or the "dreadmill" both more productive and entertaining.

Before we get into that, I want to talk psychology.

The Audience Effect

The “audience effect” is something that happens when a person’s behavior changes because they believe there is someone else watching them.

What is known in psychology as the “audience effect” is simply something that happens when a person’s behavior changes because they believe there is someone else watching them. These effects have been known about for well over 100 years but the cognitive mechanisms of this audience effect still remain unclear.

The earliest study that looked into whether or not having an audience could affect a person’s behavior is found in the work of Triplett (1898), who found that cyclists were faster when competing against each other than they were when competing against themselves or the clock.

Like I said, this effect is one of the oldest phenomena that has been studied in psychology and was the subject of intensive study in the 1960s and 1970s, with less and less interest over the last 40 years. But in a review called Audience effects: what can they tell us about social neuroscience, researchers once again examined the hypothesis. They concluded that “Unpacking the simple question of ‘what changes when someone watches’, may have important implications for our broader models of human social neuroscience and the interactive behavior across diverse populations.”

What I find really interesting is that the audience effect does not apply to just us humans. A quick PubMed search shows that mice perform differently when they have an audience, and I recently heard about a fascinating study from back in 1969 at the University of Michigan where a professor named Robert Zajonc set up a miniature stadium that housed a race track for cockroaches, lined with cockroach bleachers from which cockroach fans can watch. (Tip of the hat to @sweatscience for putting this study on my radar.)

First, professor Zajonc had cockroaches run straight through the stadium (by prompting them with a bright light). For half of the experiment they ran through the stadium all on their lonesome and the other half they ran with some cockroach fans, sitting in the cockroach stands. Were they cheering them on? Perhaps not, but they were present and that is all that was needed.

Next, the professor had the cockroaches make a few 90-degree turns during their stadium run (using more lights to steer them). He did this again with and without a roach audience.

In the end, the professor found that when performing the easier task of running in a straight line through the stadium, the roaches performed better with an audience. But when it came to the slightly more complicated task, they performed better alone. Does that sound familiar? It does to me. I guess we are more like our creepy crawly friends than we would like to believe, after all.

What does this have to do with fitness? Well, let me tell you.

Online Training

If you are like me, doing those Tai-Bo workouts, you likely encounter a lack of motivation when you are bouncing around in your living room all by yourself.

You have likely seen or perhaps even purchased for yourself a fitness video of some sort. Back in the day, I had a couple of Tai-Bo videos on VHS tape that I would put on, clear the furniture out of the living room, and use to get my sweat on. That was back in the early 1990s and the industry has blossomed since then. Now we can log on to YouTube and search for pretty much any workout we can think of and there is likely a video for it. I honestly just searched for a “Hat Workout” and sure enough, there is one!

If you are like me, doing those Tai-Bo workouts in my MC Hammer pants and a cropped t-shirt, you likely encounter a lack of motivation when you are bouncing around in your living room all by yourself. You likely don’t feel all that much shame in skipping the odd rep, fudging the moves, or occasionally walking off to the kitchen to sip some water. That is where the Massively Multiplayer Online Training platforms come in.

The Virtual Audience Effect

Just like their video game predecessors, platforms like Zwift, Peleton, LIFT Sessions, VirtuGO, RoadGrandTours, and OneLap don’t just involve you, they involve anyone else who happens to be online and interested in the same workout as you. So, from the comfort of your own home, you can race against friends or foes from around the world in real time, on a race course or workout of your choosing. Or you can virtually attend a live workout session. Or simply use proprietary gear and software to take a class with live feedback. Unlike the videos we can download, these are more interactive, personal, and fun. 

Athletes like you, from around the world, can ride (or run, or exercise) with each other in 3D-generated worlds or via a Skype-like interface. For the most part, all you need to do is connect a specific type of device (like a bike trainer, treadmill, power meter, heart rate monitor, and so on) and have a device to watch it on.  

One of the most popular platforms out there right now (with imitators nipping at their heels) is called Zwift. Zwift is a turbo trainer “game” that lets you link your turbo or smart trainer up to your computer, iPad, iPhone or Apple TV, which then allows you to ride (or run) with other people in a virtual environment. Not only does this help to alleviate some of the boredom associated with indoor training but it also elicits a heavy amount of the Audience Effect.