Astronauts may have difficulty adhering to exercise regimens at vigorous intensity levels during long space missions. Keeping up with exercise prescriptions is important for aerobic and musculoskeletal health during space missions and afterwards. A key impediment to maintaining intense levels of exercise is motivation. However, finding ways to motivate astronauts to be physically active at the levels necessary to lessen the effects of bone and muscle loss and aerobic capacity has not been explored. Exercise video games have been marketed as a way to increase people’s motivation and enjoyment to exercise by being entertaining, engaging and providing a means by which to interact with other players. Although many exercise games involve competition among players, there has been little attempt to analyze what game features and interpersonal interactions would best motivate users to continue exercising with these games. Using individuals closely matched in age and fitness to current astronauts, Dr. Deborah L. Feltz leads a research effort designed to determine whether recently documented motivation gains in task groups (dyads in particular) can be harnessed to improve motivation in interactive exercise games using virtual, software-generated (SG) partners.
Cyber Partners: Harnessing Group Dynamics to Boost Motivation for More Efficient Exercise
Deborah Feltz, Ph.D.
Michigan State University
The focus of the our study is to use principles of group dynamics to improve motivation gains in task groups (dyads in particular) to help keep them motivated to exercise at levels necessary to reduce loss of aerobic fitness and muscle over long space missions. A secondary focus is to determine the most effective features in exercise partners for enhancing enjoyment, confidence, and social connectedness. The rationale rests on the premise that astronauts need to maintain an exercise regimen to minimize bone and muscle loss (especially from hips, lower backs, and lower limbs) during long-duration space missions. High exercise intensity is needed to maximize improvements in aerobic fitness, cardiovascular health, muscle mass, strength, and balance.
The first part of this project (Aim 1) will involve the development of the software to create a computerized, more capable exercise partner, with input from astronaut focus groups, that either (a) can be observed but has no outcome interdependence with the player (coaction mode) or (b) is an exercise teammate with whom one is outcome interdependent (conjunctive mode). Once the SG partners have been refined and the cycle ergometer output data are interfaced with the games, we will pilot test how the game play has been designed to make the SG partner superior in terms of the exercise protocols.
In Aim 2, the game design will be tested through two experiments: one short-term and one long-term. For Experiment 1, participants will include male and female competitive master's-level athletes or consistent fitness club users, who meet the age and fitness criteria, to engage in vigorous physical activity. Participants will be assigned to one of four conditions: (a) individual control condition, (b) co-acting partner (e.g., exercising/competing with the SG partner), (c) teammate with conjunctive demands (e.g., working towards a team score dependent on the weaker member), and (d) choice of either a co-acting partner or conjunctive teammate. In the three experimental conditions, the SG partner is programmed to ride slightly faster on a cycle ergometer than each participant. Day 1 will include continuous cycling for 30 minutes at a workload that is at or above 75% of each participant's VO2 max. Day 2 will include a warm-up, followed by an interval workout (i.e., 8x30 seconds of maximal exercise). Participants will alternate workouts for one week.
Experiment 2 will take place over 24 weeks and include 60 participants (at least 20% will be female) and will meet the same criteria as in Experiment 1. Participants will be randomly assigned to one of three conditions: (a) individual control, (b) working collaboratively with SG partner, and (c) catch-up to SG. The catch-up condition will allow the participant to catch-up to the moderately better SG partner and will advance to working out with a new partner. Participants will perform aerobic exercises 6 days per week, alternating days of continuous cycling (as in Experiment 1) or interval training. Interval days will include alternating days of (a) 8x30 second maximal sprints, (b) 6x2 minute intervals varying levels of effort, and (c) 4x4 minute intervals at 90% effort.
Participants will be randomly selected to exercise in one of four conditions: an individual control condition, conjunctive teammate condition, coactive condition, and (d) choice of either a co-acting partner or conjunctive teammate. In the experimental partner conditions, the SG partner (coactor or teammate) is introduced as a computerized partner who has been programmed to be somewhat more capable than the participant, but has finite and surmountable stamina. Day 1 will include continuous cycling for 30 minutes at a workload that is at or above 75% of each participant's VO2 max. Day 2 will include a warm-up, followed by an interval workout (i.e., 4x4 minute of interval exercise). Participants will alternate workouts for one week.
In Aim 3, the objective is to test how well the motivation gains we expect to find will persist within longer-term exercise throughout a 24-week period. Because we don't know if participants may become discouraged over a longer time frame if they are continually the weaker player, we will design benchmarks in one of the conditions, where upon they can close the gap on their partner, and when they surpass their partner, they will move up to a new level of play with a more challenging partner. Thus, there will be 3 conditions: (a) alone, (b) SG partner always better, and (c) catch-up to, surpass, and move to a new level partner. We will use the SG partner (coaction, conjunctive, choice) who shows the most motivating effects in Exp. 1. Participants will perform aerobic exercises 6 days per week, alternating days of continuous cycling (as in Experiment 1) or interval training. Interval days will include alternating days of (a) 8x30 second maximal sprints, (b) 6x2 minute intervals varying levels of effort, and (c) 4x4 minute intervals at 90% effort. We hypothesize that exercising with an SG partner over the 24-week time period, compared to exercising alone, will lead to greater effort, adherence, enjoyment, and sense of social connectedness during the experimental sessions, as well as better post-experimental outcomes of aerobic capacity, ventilatory threshold, and muscle strength.
Exercising for purely personal concerns (for improving health, losing weight, physical rehabilitation, etc.) can be powerful motivators, but interpersonal and social concerns (for comparing favorably with others or for not letting a partner down) have the potential to add equally powerful new sources of motivation. These sources of motivation could open up a powerful set of new tools in exercise video game design for fitness especially for those with social physique anxiety, those who lack the time and/or resources to join an exercise group, and those in exercise rehabilitation therapies. Moreover, none of the existing exercise games currently on the market incorporate the critical design features suggested by contemporary social psychological research, particularly research on motivation gains in task groups (viz. immediate feedback on performance of one or more other players, the ability to control the discrepancy in abilities of players, and most importantly, the indispensability of individual player effort for determining group outcomes). Thus, our research has the potential for earth-based commercial applications to build more engaging and enjoyable exercise video games for various populations.