Why you should care
Because why should you be bored while you exercise?
Novelist Naomi Alderman had just joined a running club, and when you join one, you often share your reasons with your fellow joggers — because what the heck else do you have to talk about? Some sprinters in her club wanted to get fit, while others aimed to lose weight. But she says one woman’s reason was rather different: She wanted to be able to survive … a zombie apocalypse.
Sometimes it ain’t enough to know you’re supposed to sweat it out for 30 minutes every day in order to stay healthy, and for a growing group of people, getting immersed in a damn good story provides the right kind of motivation. Just ask the 4,000 athletes (see: Harry Potter wannabes) who play on Quidditch teams across the U.S., working out while pretending their broomsticks fly and that the Golden Snitch is the ultimate prize. Then are those fitness freaks who’ve bought workout gear inspired by the death-defying Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, plus a growing number of mermaid-style swimming classes and a few exercise apps, including one that has hit 2 million downloads.
It isn’t tough to understand why people prefer a touch of fantasy when they’re sweating away, feeling and looking their worst. For Eric Salvador, a trainer who busts butts at the Fhitting Room in New York, adding narrative into a workout’s mix is just an extension of a classic workout technique — distraction, much like having a friend to socialize with at the gym. “If a workout isn’t fun, you’re not gonna do it,” he says. Indeed, some surveys have found respondents simply find exercising too boring, or that there are other, arguably better alternatives. The U.K.’s Mental Health Foundation, for one, found nearly 30 percent of people would rather finish housework than work out, while 3 percent would prefer watching Justin Bieber in concert.
Some bring their own tails (and wigs and tridents) to class like yogis do with their mats.
Sure, there have been plenty of attempts to juice up this pastime — if you can call it that — by launching fitness programs or competitions “inspired” by training regimens for military members or special forces teams. Some companies have also stepped in with wristbands or pocket-friendly devices that effectively turn exercise into a game, where the more steps taken or calories burned rack up more points. But, until recently, working out hasn’t been turned into a story on quite this scale. Like with, say, zombies.
That’s why Alderman and her collaborator, Adrian Hon, who’d been a runner but found the practice both tedious and painful, came up with Zombies, Run! Their free smartphone app, which recently racked up 2 million downloads, turns a workout into a choose-your-own-adventure run, where you listen to music and one of 200 missions via headphones. As you are chased by the walking dead, you must speed up to earn supplies to help rebuild your town. It may sound silly, but Hon brings up a good point: In an apocalyptic world with bad roads and no gas for a car, “it really would be useful to be able to run a lot.” And the app has already spawned a couple of follow-up games by the same company: Superhero Workout ($3) has you perform calisthenics while listening to a hero-inspired narrative, while The Walk (also $3) plunks someone who wants gentle exercise into the middle of a spy story.
Like most Spinning and yoga classes, not all fitness-centric stories are solitary. Marielle Chartier Hénault discovered a very broad fascination with her, um, tail when a photographer friend asked her to model for an underwater shoot in a mermaid costume. Not only did the tail work her abs in new ways, but passers-by stopped, stared and took their own pics. Hénault cribbed some moves from monofin swimming, an existing sport, and transformed it into something for both kids and adults — 1,500 people took classes through her AquaMermaid business in Montreal and Toronto last year, some of whom bring their own tails (and wigs and tridents) to class like yogis do with their mats. “It’s all about the fantasy,” says Hénault, whose classes start at $60. “You don’t really realize you’re getting a workout.”
But distractions during exercise also have their downside. After all, when you’re pretending to run from zombies or undulating underwater, you’re not focused on how many calories you’re burning or how much you tend to twist your foot in the wrong direction. Fitness gurus point out that without a trainer — or much experience with exercise — people might overextend themselves, or get bored when they advance more quickly than a narrative allows. Beyond that, not every workout is for everyone: Salvador once ran a class based on tribute training in The Hunger Games and found himself in a room filled with rabid fans who didn’t know the first thing about working out. “They were just in it because they loved the characters in the movie,” he says.
Still, not everyone can last jogging for miles — “It’s just super boring,” says Hon. “Why shouldn’t people role-play or pretend if it helps?”