One of the best things I came across in 2014 was Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), or specifically Stepmania, a free version you can play on your computer. It is a dance game that looks basically like this (skip the first minute) or this if you are very good and play in arcades.
I’m never sure whether to draw attention to seemingly large improvements to my life: mileages vary, and improvements are often imaginary (especially if excessive imagination makes it onto the list of things to be improved). However DDR solves what I think is a very basic and common problem: the problem of exercise being less addictive than computer games.
For instance, I sometimes exercise by running. A good fraction of my thoughts while running are about whether I can stop running yet, and the other ones are mostly appeals to not do that. Incidentally, ‘can I stop yet?’ is not a thought I have ever had while playing Civ IV, though I have played much more Civ IV than I have run. Conversely, ‘just one more turn?‘ is a rare thought while running.
Some other sources of exercise are more fun for me, but still mostly require an active effort to do instead of not doing. Based on gym membership’s most famous feature being its liability to be forgotten about, and the connection between exercise and willpower in the popular mind, I think I am in the majority when I say exercise does not usually remind me of playing Civ IV. Except in the sense that exercise reminds me to play Civ IV instead.
For me at least, DDR is enough like Civ IV for the analogy to be salient. I frequently get to the end of a song, and just want to play one more. Often even when I am in a state of exhaustion beyond what I could dream of achieving by running. The addictive quality is not nearly as extreme as for some actual computer games: I’m mostly capable of deciding to stop, and usually actively want to at some point. Sometimes I don’t even want to play at all. But often, the strongest temptation is to keep going.
I might just guess that some people find some exercises randomly fun, and this one happens to be fun for me. But DDR is much more like a computer game than most forms of exercise (it even involves a computer!) And computer games are known to be unusually addictive among pastimes. So I doubt that it is by chance that DDR seems so compelling to me. So, if you are looking for an exercise routine that is very easy to want to do, I recommend trying DDR.
DDR also avoids a further problem, which is less universal, but perhaps disproportionately important for people who would most benefit from exercise: that good exercise often requires you to leave your house. Exercise purportedly helps a lot with mental health problems like anxiety and depression. But anxious and depressed people are often particularly unenthusiastic about going to distant new places to do physically difficult things with a bunch of semi-strangers (I claim), which rules out many forms of exercise. And mentally healthy people too often prefer to spend less time and bother on their exercise. Being able to pull a dance mat out from under your bed and start dancing, with the option of stopping and putting it back under your bed at any moment, is a particularly easy and low commitment way to begin exercising.
Even if DDR is not that great an activity for you, an important point is that exercise can be easy to start and hard to stop, even for people to whom almost all exercises seem arduous. So if you think that exercise is fundamentally an exertion of willpower, it may be that you just haven’t tried enough kinds of exercise. I realize this is obvious to many people, but it wasn’t to me, and I would pay a lot to have been informed of it in high school, or to have just been given a DDR pad.
Here is some concrete evidence about how DDR affects my exercise routine:
The red dots are basically times when I exercised just enough to not fail; then it goes orange, blue, green. As you can see, I used to almost always exercise just enough not to fail, and often less than that. I also often didn’t start the graph up again for a while after failing, though this is influenced by other factors e.g. Beeminder’s recent policy of restarting automatically. I started playing DDR on around the 13th of April 2014, which is shortly before where the graph goes from mostly red to mostly blue and green.
Here is roughly how to play DDR:
- Buy a dance pad, probably a USB one unless you have some fancier device to play on than your computer. I use some that look like this and they seem decent.
- Download Stepmania.
- Get some songs. I did this by getting the files from a friend. You can also get them from here (or here) it seems. You probably want the ones labeled ‘Pad (4-panel) — Community Compilations’. I have mostly ‘In the Groove’ ones. Put the folder you download into the ‘Songs’ folder in the ‘Stepmania’ folder you hopefully got by downloading Stepmania.
- Plug in the pad. Open Stepmania. Press ‘enter’ a bunch. If anything bad happens, Google it. Step on the arrows. Expect to be very bad at it at first.
Option B (recommended):
- Find someone with the things listed in option A set up, and ask them if you can try it out.
Cool, I’m going to try this. I just ordered the dance mat you linked.
I find DDR to be very good exercise now; performance is limited by stamina, it’s logistically convenient and fun, and a series of 1 minute high bouts of high-intensity exercise seems like a pretty good format.
But I don’t think that DDR was as tiring as sprinting until I’d been playing for quite a while, and during the startup period it wasn’t very efficient exercise. For at least the first 10 hours, and maybe much longer (30 hours?) I was pretty limited by coordination and ability to read notes. I only stuck with it for social reasons while in undergrad, and based on the reassurance/observation that it would eventually be effective exercise. So I would add a caveat to the recommendation.
If you play on Doubles mode, where you have to play across two pads, it’ll be much more intense exercise: instead of just shifting your weight from foot to foot, you actually have to accelerate and decelerate your center of mass. Also, it’s more than twice as overwhelming. Strongly recommend. :)
I would love to see DDR more popular in the rationalist community. Thank you!
I think the addictive part is exaggerating the feedback you get from the exercise. When I run, I have to make too many steps to have the scenery around me change just a little. If I imagine running in a virtual reality — doing exactly the same moves with my body, but having more interesting scenery around me, with a lot of colors and sounds, and it changing more quickly — I feel this would already be much more interesting. If during the run in the virtual reality I would also have something to occupy my mind, for example a gun to shoot virtual enemies, that would be even better.
So I guess for me the problem with usual exercise is not that I have to invest a lot of energy, but that the result is very boring. Yeah, in long term I could be more fit and healthy, but in short term (which is important for conditioning) there is no reward. Unless I invent some clever self-rewarding system, such as giving myself a candy every time I run. But if I could run in an interesting environment, then the reward would feel more natural.
By the way, “making exercise fun for computer-addicted people” could be a great business opportunity. For example, anytime I see people using stationary bicycles, I think how great it would be if those bicycles were used in a multi-player game.
Imagine: your movement on the bike = your movement in the game; you turn the wheel = you turn in the game; you could also have “fire” buttons to shoot enemies. All people who exercise are playing in the same multiplayer area, everyone has their own screen in front of the bike, they can shoot their enemies (who respawn immediately) and collect some objects (so they are motivated to keep moving) or whatever.
That does sound awesome. There are things like this http://www.amazon.com/Fillpoint-VG-273200-Cyberbike-Magnetic/dp/B0058CSF8E but I don’t know what the game is like.
I’ve been doing the same for years :-D
Wii fit tries to do something similar, in being halfway between exercise and a game, but that worked for the first few weeks, then it got boring. On the upside, I can have wii fit on one monitor, some video I want to watch on second monitor, and that works reasonably well.
In both cases I absolutely despise how long it takes to get them to state where I can start playing/exercising, like 5+ minutes, which is enough to really dampen any initial enthusiasm. In case of Stepmania that’s definitely due to my very large library of songs (in spite of very fast machine, and songs located on fast SSD), but the program should be able to handle. In case of Wii it’s because of really dumb design that forces me through twenty menus, forced messages, and delays before it gets to actual content.
There’s nothing trivial about such trivial inconveniences. If someone actually knows how to get around these issues, I’d love to know.
I don’t play DDR, but I think the Wii version of Punch Out might be useful in much the same way. It’s surprising just how much one can sweat swinging virtual punches.
I imagine it has somewhat more variance in how appealing it is to different people. Some people don’t like losing games, and you tend to eventually reach a point where you do a lot of losing.
I mounted a screen, keyboard and mouse on my stationary bike, so I can play any games I like. Civ V turned out to be a good fit.
That is awesome. Does it have the desired effect?
Not as well as I’d hoped.
On the plus side, it requires no willpower to use and I totally get the ‘just one more turn!’ effect – because it’s hard to play a Civ game start to finish in one sitting! So I get in two hours of pedaling every time I use it, and also don’t go to sleep on time.
On the minus side, whenever I’m concentrating hard on the game I forget to pedal hard enough, and then I catch myself a few minutes later not exerting much effort or even stopping. What’s missing is a way to put my body on exercise autopilot.
I thought about a running machine with a screen mounted in front, maybe with a wireless game controller instead of the mouse and keyboard so I could move around a bit. But I don’t have room in my house for it.
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