Exercise has numerous health benefits. From the physical to the mental, and the mounds of research we hear everyday supports that. But in this case, knowledge isn’t power. Because right now, one-third of adults, and close to 80% of adolescents worldwide, are at increased risk of disease as a result of physical inactivity.

So, what’s their problem. It’s simple right? Just do it. In NYC alone, there are 1,200 gyms that are waiting for you to walk through the door. Unfortunately, most people just don’t. As a matter of fact, 67% of people that have gym memberships never even go. This means that 10’s of millions of people would prefer to pay hundreds, or even thousands per year,  and literally die, then set foot in a gym.

Even though gyms try to convince through enormous marketing budgets that gyms are amazing, the reality is that most gyms are not like waht is presented. They aren’t social, they are anti-social. They aren’t engaging, they’re work. They aren’t motivating, they’re boring. 

  As my interview subject, Chris Valley, explained, "It is impossible to overstate the part that fear plays in promoting inactivity. It sounds easy to just go to the gym, but the onboarding process, whether we realize it or not, is incredibly difficult for novice users."

That didn't sound very positive, right? After interviewing over a dozen experts, I couldn’t help but feel that an overwhelming amount of the language was negative. But I wanted to find proof. So, I embarked on a detailed examination of the vocabulary used during my interviews, and I documented, and labeled each recorded word as either clinical, or emotional, and subjectively determined whether it was positive, negative, or neutral. And, honestly,, the amount of clinical, negative language was alarming.

 So, how do you design the opposite of that? Well, let’s start with vocabulary. When browsing through the thesaurus, I discovered that there was a single shared antonym for many of these negative sounding words. That antonym? Playful 

Now that’s interesting, and it reminds me of a quote from, Daniella Bertol: “Playful activity inspires awareness of our bodies and forces us to focus on our movements. This kind of awareness and focus becomes meditative and distracts us from our emotional and physical pain.” Play is not something you need to convince yourself to do, as a matter of fact we all crave play. Yet, as adults we find less and less time to play.

As Jill Vialet, CEO of Playworks stated in her 2014 TEDmed talk, “Play matters because it gives us a brief respite from the tyranny of apparent purpose. We were built to play. Play is pleasurable. And the opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression. 

I would like to present you with 3 design interventions that tackle the two major issues with traditional gym culture: Motivation and Engagement. And if we are lucky, we might find a space that feels like play.

During my academic explorations of play, I discovered Physical Education curriculum for early childhood education that involved physical play and game invention. However, I wanted to push this idea further, and started breaking down the elements of a game into its core components: Boundaries, scoring, and penalties. I wondered if it’s possible to create a game using these core game components, even when traditional game objects like balls, nets, racquets and bats are not available? 

With these constraints, I developed Trashy Games: a generative physical game creation workshop. Participants pair up, and develop their game by rolling a six sided die which determines the mechanic for each bucket. The mashed-up mechanics act as a scaffold to hang the narrative of a new game from, and the participants choose game objects to bring it all to life.

 But as fun and awesome as the experience was, all of my workshop participants joined because they felt a sense of responsibility, and personal obligation towards me. Friendship was their motivator, both intrinsically, and extrinsically, and without that motivation, it is likely that many of them would not have been willing to leave the house on a cold, wet, rainy Saturday morning to get active and play.

So what if they didn’t have to leave the house? What if they could do Tai Chi on a mountain top, or hit a Zumba class on the beach without ever leaving the house. Leveraging mobile VR technology, I started to examine a UI that allows the wearer to select traditional fitness activities offered at a gym. However, instead of the traditional gym environment, the app offers a variety of locations to choose from.

This led to the development of NewDimensions: customizable, immersive, mobile VR exercise experience that acts as a platform for brand placement and celebrity-sponsored content. With a low monthly price point and no physical barriers to overcome. That project goes a long way in reducing the friction. But does it provide sufficient motivation? Would I still rather just netflix and chill?

I started thinking about Dr James Levine and his now famous quote about sedentary lifestyles: “Sitting is the new smoking.” We live in a culture that makes it impossible to get away from sitting for long periods of time. This is especially true during the work week.

I started sketching out a typical workday and found that between transit, the desk at work, and your couch at home, it is nearly impossible to avoid sitting. Or, if Dr Levin is correct, we are all heavy smokers.

Many Fortune 500 companies, in order to increase productivity, decrease insurance premiums, and add a perk for recruitment have been building office gyms. NYC has 53 Fortune 500 companies, and with an average of 4,000 sq ft for gym space, and a price of approximately $73 per square foot for a midtown office. That means each company is spending over $292,000 a month, or $3.5 million per year. That is a combined total 1.85 billion dollars between all 53 companies.

And as we already know, 67% of people will probably not go. That’s not sustainable for the business or the environment. Going forward into next semester, I plan to continue on the path of level up, and create delightful, fun, and inter-ACTIVE play.

-Michael Lee Kenney