Can this fitness trend inspire the people who hate exercise?

Can this fitness trend inspire the people who hate exercise?

Life & Style
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"I think as we grow up we take ourselves seriously, we forget how to play and how to have fun."

I understand why people hate exercise. Take away ability (because there are people with and without natural competence who enjoy exercise) and the fact that some people are less genetically inclined to get a dopamine high from HIIT, and you are left with the fact that exercise isn't fun anymore. 

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At least it's not for a lot of people. We go from movement being a form of messing around and play as children to movement being a brainless, boring form of torment in a smelly, windowless box as adults. 

Experts, wringing their hands at the dire cost of our collective lack of movement, have explored everything from the minimum amount necessary (30 minutes of moderate exercise a day or one minute if you go full-blast) to paying people to go to the gym (it doesn't work for long). Then there is the radical idea to inject the fun back in.

One new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that if you essentially turn exercise into Pokemon, then people moved "significantly" more than those who just monitored their daily movement with a fitness tracker.

The blurred lines of entertainment and exercise, fitness and fun may help to explain the appeal of Ninja Warrior, which broke ratings records, but also inspired trend of Ninja Warrior-inspired gyms around the country, from Western Australia's Ninja Academy to Terrain Training on the Gold Coast and X-Park at Bounce Inc at various locations . 

Lisa Parkes and Lex Richards at the Ninja Play Academy. Photo: Deryck Shakespeare

Lisa Parkes and Lex Richards at the Ninja Play Academy. Photo: Deryck Shakespeare

"I think as we grow up we take ourselves seriously, we forget how to play and how to have fun. There's something really powerful in being childlike again and I think people are able to recognise that," says Lisa Parkes, who competed on the first season of Ninja Warrior and is co-owner of Byron Bay's new Ninja Play Academy, a space designed for play with trampolines and monkey bars, spring floors, warped wall and ropes.

"The science of how the body has evolved and is designed to move and what actually feels good and is an expression of self and capability and fun are coming together," adds co-owner Lex Richards, who insists that 'Ninja' fitness is for everyone, at adjusted levels.

"It's creating some sort of education through understanding of the biomechanics and the importance of functional movement and strength and conditioning but then that coming into a playful space." 

The counter-culture trend to fitness as punishment, to a lack of play in adulthood and our increasingly sedentary lifestyles makes sense, and absolutely appeals to the giant children among us (myself included).

But is it enough to entice those who hate exercise; can it create behaviour change on a broader level?

"Fifty per cent of Australian adults do not meet the admittedly modest basic physical activity guideline (doing at least 150 minutes of brisk walking per week)," says Emmanuel Stamatakis, an associate professor and senior research fellow at the Charles Perkins Centre in the University of Sydney's School of Public Health. "There's no game, smartphone app, or gym trend that can solve this problem in the long term."

Combine fun fitness with convenience however, and we might be onto something.

Monkeying around for the sake of fitness: Lisa Parkes and Lex Richards. Photo: Deryck Shakespeare

Monkeying around for the sake of fitness: Lisa Parkes and Lex Richards. Photo: Deryck Shakespeare

"Think of cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, they have pretty much solved this problem as the majority of people cycle on a daily basis," Stamatakis says. "But they do so because cycling is the fastest, easiest, and most convenient option that happens to be a hell of a fun too."   

That, of course, requires the state to facilitate convenient, safe exercise. Others believe a national fitness plan is the way forward. But, however we make exercise easier for people the more likely we are to create the change we need. Game-ification of fitness and the Ninja Warrior trend (as well as any form of movement that injects joy back into movement) have a role in this.

"At face value, making the "difficult stuff in life" fun  is a great idea as a means of behaviour change," Stamatakis says. "People very rarely change behaviour (and stick to these changes) because they try to cut their chronic disease risk. Instead they modify their lifestyles and stick to these changes when the healthy option becomes the convenient, easy, and fun option."

He says we should be "realistic" about the potential of fun to transform the face of fitness in the long-term, but adds:

"Of course, having fun is a great health outcome in its own right and people should not be discouraged from taking up such activities."   

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