By AMANDA VOGEL, M.A.
The other day when I picked up my daughter from kindergarten, I found her racing around the school playground with friends. When I caught up with her, she was out of breath and grinning from ear to ear. I was happy to see her exercising. But was it exercise to her? Not at all, it was just a fun game, the kind that fitness pros can easily translate to the world of adult fitness, too.
Why Games Work
It’s natural for kids to get exercise through fun activity-oriented games—organized ones like Duck Duck Goose or impromptu ones like tearing around a playground—but somewhere along the way, exercise for adults took a turn to the serious side. As a result, many adults are quick to describe the kind of gym-based exercise they do as, quite frankly, “no fun.”
Fortunately, fitness professionals know it doesn’t have to be that way. The trick is to plan workouts (and perhaps not even call them workouts?) that deliver the same variety and unpredictability that naturally unfolds in kids’ games, like tag.
When fitness clients hop on a treadmill for half an hour, they generally know what to expect from that exercise session—it’s predictable. Games, on the other hand, are a good way to take the monotony out of standard workouts, says Beth Middlekauff, a California-based personal trainer, boot-camp expert and owner of BethMidFitness.com.
In a class or boot camp where games are part of the experience, there is an element of newness. “Games offer a break from the typical structure and routine that is all too familiar in life and in fitness,” says Tim Haft, a fitness pro based in New York City and president of Punk Rope Inc, a fitness and instructor-training program described as a mash-up between boot camp and recess. Besides breaking away from the serious side of exercise, clients are able to focus on both teamwork and excelling at the game’s objective. This may be especially true if the game introduces an element of friendly competition.
“Some adults particularly enjoy trying to win as it gives them a specific objective to shoot for,” says Haft. And for those clients who couldn’t care less about winning? “Games also help ‘distract’ students from the discomfort that often accompanies intense exercise,” adds Haft.
Games Rev Up Client Effort
One major benefit of playing fitness games is that it motivates clients to ramp up their exercise efforts, either because they have a competitive streak or because they don’t want to let their teammates down. Most clients—whether they are competitive or not—are more likely to do their best when they know others are cheering them on as part of the game.
“I’ve had a number of students that go into ‘overdrive’ when a game is played. They thrive on competition and hate to lose,” says Haft. Competition aside, though, Haft says helping clients rev up intensity comes down to an important element of any good game: a clear goal. “In general, most students crank up the effort level a notch when there is a clear objective that can be quantified,” he says.
It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose ….
Haft, who’s been teaching games in his Punk Rope program since its inception in 2004, says the amount of effort clients put forth during “game time” hinges somewhat on their personalities. For example, some clients are motivated by the cooperative aspect of a game more than by the opportunity to compete. Managing the right balance of both helps create games that appeal to everyone.
Middlekauff makes sure she sets the tone for fair play in her boot camps. “When I coach, I like to recognize clients’ triumphs and milestones,” she says. “The campers become aware of that and tend to behave similarly. Everyone roots for everyone else!”
Another teaching tactic for fostering camaraderie is to break up competitive cliques before any one team has the chance to dominate every game. “When I see that the same teams and partners are being formed repeatedly, I make sure to mix it up, often before it happens,” says Middlekauff. Her solution: Assign teams versus asking clients to form their own.
Haft likes to provide a pre-game pep talk to get play moving in the right direction. “Before our relay races, for example, I tell students that the most important thing is that they cheer for their teammates. There’s no ‘us-against-them’ mentality,” he says. “This approach has worked beautifully and resulted in a very positive community spirit.”
It’s Game Time!
Bringing team spirit to your classes and boot camps in the form of fun games and playful activities can encourage clients to not only adhere to your program but to also work out more intensely than they might on their own. The benefit? Better overall results, for them and you. Here are four fun and easy games to get you started. The first two games are courtesy of Tim Haft, M.A., president of Punk Rope, Inc., based in New York City. For more game ideas from Haft, check out his manual of Punk Rope’s 20 favorite games. The remaining two games are courtesy of Beth Middlekauff, owner of BethMidFitness.com boot camps in Livermore, Calif.
GAME: ROBIN HOOD
- Fist-sized balls, such as stress balls or tennis balls; you need more balls than the number of players.
- At least two baskets, buckets or bins to place on the floor.
Space required: basketball court, field or playground
Recommended number of players: 10–30, depending on the size of the playing area
Recommended game length: 2 minutes
Set-up: Create two teams with the same number of players (if there is an odd number, you might have to participate as a player, or have two clients agree to trade off midway through the game). Divide the playing area into two halves, one half for each team, and place all the balls in the middle. At the back of each team’s area, place one or more “baskets” where players place the balls they’ve captured.
Objective: For each team to accumulate as many balls as possible in their basket(s) by the allotted time.
PLAY!: Players begin the game by picking up one ball at a time and placing it in their team’s basket(s). Encourage players to run! Once all the balls have been placed in baskets, players can begin running to the opposition’s basket(s), removing one ball at a time and bringing it back to their own team’s basket(s). Remind players to keep their heads up to avoid collisions.
GAME: CIRCLE BALL
Equipment: One small playground ball per group, such as a soccer ball or child’s ball
Space required: Any indoor or outdoor space with a flat surface that can accommodate all players
Recommended number of players: 6–8 per group
Recommended length: 2 minutes
Set-up: Divide the class into groups of six to eight people. Players stand in a circle with feet spread as wide as possible and with the outer edge of each foot touching the outer edge of their neighbor’s foot. One player is given the ball to get the game started.
Objective: To score by rolling the ball through another player’s legs while blocking balls from rolling through your own.
PLAY!: The player with the ball tries to bat the ball with an open palm through the legs of another player. All players defend and block shots from opposing players by keeping their hands low to the ground. Players must only roll the ball—no throwing or catching. Players can only bat the ball with open palms and all shots must stay on the ground.
Be careful not to hit the ball in the air as it may strike another playerin the face. When a player ‘scores’ by successfully rolling the ball through another player's legs, the successful player retrieves the ball while the other players in the circle perform three push-ups or a set number of reps of a specified exercise.
GAME: TOWEL RACE
- Per partner team: Two sets of heavy dumbbells or other weighted objects with handles (kettlebells or sand-filled milk jugs)
- One large towel or resistance tubing with handles per partner team
- Two cones, water bottles, branches or other obvious marker per partner team
Space required: Open field, fitness studio or gym
Recommended number or players: Partner teams
Recommended length of game: 2–4 minutes
Set-up: Divide class into teams of two and place cones across the field or room from one another to create a point A and point B (the distance between cones varies based on clients’ fitness levels and available space).
Objective: Partner teams in the class race against each other to complete the course first or see how many rounds they can complete in the allotted time. Partners can keep track of each completed round by taking a card from a deck of cards after each round.
PLAY!: Partner A ties the towel or band around his or her waist while partner B holds the towel/band and “tows” behind partner A, creating resistance as they walk from one cone to another. The partners must walk or take long strides; running is not allowed and there must be tension on the band or towel at all times. At point B, they remove the towel/band and each player picks up a set of dumbbells and walks briskly back to point A. The partners then run back to point B, do the “tow” drill back to point A with the other partner in the lead, and then walk to point B carrying dumbbells.
GAME: BIG HOT POTATO
Equipment: One stability ball per group. (You may also use smaller balls, such as a soccer ball or playground ball)
Space required: Open field, fitness studio or gym
Recommended number of players: 4–6 players per team
Recommended length of game: 2–4 minutes
Set-up: Each team forms a circle and begins by tossing the ball in the air.
Objective: To keep the ball in the air without it touching the ground. The team that can keep the ball in the air for the longest wins.
PLAY!: Players must keep the ball in the air by kicking it, volleying it and/or using hands or other body parts to propel the ball upward. Second option: Do another drill where players must do continuous squats while keeping the ball up in the air (this game is called Big Mashed Potato).
Amanda Vogel, MA, holds a master’s degree in human kinetics and is a certified fitness pro in Vancouver, B.C. In addition to being the co-author of Baby Boot Camp: The New Mom’s 9-Minute Fitness Solution (Sterling, Jan. 2010), Amanda owns Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. Her articles have appeared in Prevention, Shape, Health and SELF. You can reach her at www.ActiveVoice.ca, http://FitnessWriter.blogspot.com or www.twitter.com/amandavogel.