The Future of Fitness: Massively Multiplayer Online Training

Like online gaming, the idea of working with (or against) other people around the world, from the safety of your own home, has spread to fitness and exercise. How can you benefit from it?

Brock Armstrong
7-minute read
Episode #392

If you are a serious cyclist or runner, dedicated to your performance goals, then you will likely find yourself riding, running, or lifting indoors at some point during the year. Traditionally, that has been a pretty boring affair that involves staring at a motivational poster on your wall while trying to drown out the sound of your own heavy breathing with some rocking tunes. But lately, there are a bunch of cool apps that certainly make your time on the trainer or the "dreadmill" both more productive and entertaining.

Before we get into that, I want to talk psychology.

The audience effect

What is known in psychology as the “audience effect” is simply something that happens when a person’s behavior changes because they believe there is someone else watching them. These effects have been known about for well over 100 years, but the cognitive mechanisms of this audience effect still remain unclear.

Cyclists were faster when competing against each other than they were when competing against themselves or the clock.

The earliest study that looked into whether or not having an audience could affect a person’s behavior is found in the work of Triplett (1898), who found that cyclists were faster when competing against each other than they were when competing against themselves or the clock.

As I said, this effect is one of the oldest phenomena that has been studied in psychology and was the subject of intensive study in the 1960s and 1970s, with less and less interest over the last 40 years. But in a review called Audience effects: what can they tell us about social neuroscience, researchers once again examined the hypothesis. They concluded that “Unpacking the simple question of ‘what changes when someone watches’, may have important implications for our broader models of human social neuroscience and the interactive behavior across diverse populations.”

What I find interesting is that the audience effect does not apply to just us humans. A quick PubMed search shows that mice perform differently when they have an audience. I recently heard about a fascinating study from back in 1969 at the University of Michigan where a professor named Robert Zajonc set up a miniature stadium that housed a race track for cockroaches, lined with cockroach bleachers from which cockroach fans can watch. (Tip of the hat to @sweatscience for putting this study on my radar.)

First, professor Zajonc had cockroaches run straight through the stadium (by prompting them with a bright light). For half of the experiment, they ran through the stadium all on their lonesome, and the other half they ran with some cockroach fans, sitting in the cockroach stands. Were they cheering them on? Perhaps not, but they were present, and that is all that was needed.

Next, the professor had the cockroaches make a few 90-degree turns during their stadium run (using more lights to steer them). He did this again with and without a roach audience.

In the end, the professor found that when performing the easier task of running in a straight line through the stadium, the roaches performed better with an audience. But when it came to a slightly more complicated task, they performed better alone. Does that sound familiar? It does to me. I guess we are more like our creepy crawly friends than we would like to believe, after all.

What does this have to do with fitness? Well, let me tell you.

Online training

You have likely seen or perhaps even purchased for yourself a fitness video of some sort. Back in the day, I had a couple of Tai-Bo videos on VHS tape that I would put on, clear the furniture out of the living room, and use to get my sweat on. That was back in the early 1990s, and the industry has blossomed since then. Now we can log on to YouTube and search for pretty much any workout we can think of, and there is likely a video for it. I honestly just searched for a “Hat Workout” and sure enough, there is one!

If you are like me, doing those Tai-Bo workouts, you likely encounter a lack of motivation when you are bouncing around in your living room all by yourself.

If you are like me, doing those Tai-Bo workouts in my MC Hammer pants and a cropped t-shirt, you likely encounter a lack of motivation when you are bouncing around in your living room all by yourself. You likely don’t feel all that much shame in skipping the odd rep, fudging the moves, or occasionally walking off to the kitchen to sip some water. That is where the Massively Multiplayer Online Training platforms come in.

If you're looking for some home workouts that take you from warmup to cooldown, I recently shared 23 home exercise videos.

The Virtual Audience Effect

Just like their video game predecessors, platforms like Zwift, Peleton, LIFT Sessions, RoadGrandTours, and OneLap don’t just involve you, they involve anyone else who happens to be online and interested in the same workout as you. So, from the comfort of your own home, you can compete against friends or foes from around the world in real-time, on a racecourse, or during a workout. Or you can virtually attend a live workout session. Or simply use proprietary gear and software to take a class with live feedback. Unlike the videos we can download, these are more interactive, personal, and fun. 

Athletes like you, from around the world, can ride (or run, or exercise) with each other in 3D-generated worlds or via a Skype-like interface. For the most part, all you need to do is connect a specific type of device (like a bike trainer, treadmill, power meter, heart rate monitor, and so on) and have a device to watch it on.  

One of the most popular platforms out there right now (with imitators nipping at their heels) is called Zwift. Zwift is a turbo trainer “game” that lets you link your turbo or smart trainer up to your computer, iPad, iPhone, or Apple TV, which then allows you to ride (or run) with other people in a virtual environment. Not only does this help to alleviate some of the boredom associated with indoor training but it also elicits a heavy amount of the Audience Effect.

For example, Canadian professional triathlete, winner of the 2017 ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships, and second-place finisher at the Ironman World Championship, Lionel Sanders, posted this on Instagram:

Entered in a race called the Iron Goat on @gozwift today. Should have read the description. Intention was to sit in and draft the whole race. Turns out, it hits every hill in London! 70 minutes later at 380w NP, and this is the end of my final attack in an attempt to break away. Pro-tip: read the description before entering in race! #nolimits

The accompanying Instagram video shows Lionel grunting with effort and literally dripping with sweat. For me, I find it not only refreshing to see someone of his caliber suffering as much as the rest of us, but it also speaks volumes to how this platform encourages even someone like him to push harder than he intended to during that training ride.

More about the platforms

People who use the same platform as Lionel not only compete against other riders but, if they are interested in specific training sessions, they can access workouts designed by professional coaches as well. These workouts can be completed in groups or alone.

One of the things that Zwift boasts is that the game can be better than outdoor riding due to the elimination of things like weather, traffic, time constraints, and distance from other cyclists, which they say can “take the fun out of it.” I agree in principle with this idea, but as I have written about before, I am a huge believer in being a pedal-estrian. So yes, this is a great way to get a great and specific workout, and also a way to stay safe and warm on a cold, snowy day in winter—but it is not a replacement for actually getting out there on your bike and practicing the technical aspects of riding in weather, traffic, time constraints, and distance from other cyclists.

A LIFT session is a live online training session with an elite coach (who is virtually there) providing feedback, correcting your form, and also pushing you to work harder. They do this by using live audio and video technology (similar to Skype or FaceTime) and are available in both group and one-on-one format. This experience really is as close to having a personal trainer drop by your home without having to shell out the bucks for that personal service.

The platform called Peleton is described as “Live studio cycling or running, ready when you are.” It features a sleek and sturdy bike or treadmill that combines some high-end tech with access to a wide range of workouts anytime your schedule allows or on-demand. Both the bike and the treadmill have a tablet type screen attached to them at eye level where you watch the instructor as they guide you through your workout.

I won't go through every single option because I think you are getting the idea. These are fun and motivating. 

Do you need equipment?

For Zwift, all you need is a turbo trainer. If you want full immersion, and you have some money to spend, then a smart turbo trainer is a super fun option. This goes for RoadGrandTours and a few others.

For Peleton, you need to shell out for one of their branded stationary bikes or treadmills. They are pretty slick, but unlike purchasing a trainer for a bike, that you can also ride outside, you are stuck riding or running in your basement or spare room with this one.

For LIFT sessions, you only need a Chrome web browser on any laptop. For their one-on-one personal coaching sessions, LIFT is available through Chrome and Firefox web browser on any laptop or Android tablets and the LIFT app for iPad.

These options certainly make working out at home a lot more fun.

So depending on your fitness needs, challenge desires, and annual income, there seems to be an option for most of us. As someone who has lived most of his life in locations where the winter weather is actively trying to end all life on this planet, I am in favor of any way to make being active indoors easier and more fun.

While I am constantly encouraging you to move your bodies in incidental ways throughout the day (rather than relying on a single workout to contain your entire day’s movement), hitting your fitness or performance goals relies on the ability to workout in some very specific ways. These options certainly make working out at home a lot more fun.

Plus, just like the cockroaches running in the stadium, the mice choosing their mate, or the cyclists who were tested more than 100 years ago, having an audience, virtual or not, certainly can be a motivator. One that goes well beyond the motivational poster you put up near your weight bench or simply relying on your own best intentions. If these Massively Multiplayer Online Training platforms can make an athlete like Lionel Sanders nearly drool with effort, it can likely help you break through your own fitness and performance goals.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.