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'Ring Fit Adventure' Understands the Shame and Fear of Exercise

I've always wanted to do something—anything—other than run, but I never had the confidence or guidance. Until now.

by Patrick Klepek
Nov 20 2019, 2:00pm

Some years back, I started running. My wife and I moved into an apartment building with a gym around the same time I’d been told to start thinking about my family history with high blood pressure and heart disease. (For people familiar with my history, this was long before my father experienced a sudden heart attack.) Running didn’t require a lot of prep work, and in a bonus I’d quickly come to cherish, it was a form of exercise you could perform outside. More importantly, it came easy to me. I was able to run for miles, usually between three and five, without much effort—and it made me feel good as hell. I did some of my best thinking while running, and when I discovered running was basically a hangover cure all? I was sold.

Running spoiled me, and I bounced off other forms of exercise. I tried small weights. I tried pushups. Everything was boring, frustrating, and the fruits of their labor weren’t immediately impactful in the way running was. Plus, truth be told, I found engaging with other forms of exercise humiliating. I could never tell if I was doing them right, and the prospect of hiring a personal trainer, putting my embarrassment in front of another person, was unthinkable. I’d print out online diagrams and follow YouTube videos, but could never tell if I was doing it right. I knew how to run, and so I kept running. And then, Ring Fit Adventure came along.

Ring Fit Adventure is a spiritual successor to Wii Fit, one of several wild experiments during Nintendo’s Wii era that were openly mocked before people tried them and went “Oh.” Ring Fit Adventure ditches the iconic balance board for a combination of items: a tech-infused pilates ring sporting a slot for one Joy-Con and a leg strap that houses the other Joy-Con. And whereas Wii Fit was largely about engaging with a series of disconnected mini-games, Ring Fit Adventure is more ambitious, wrapping everything around a silly but effective JRPG.

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The short version is that I've spent the past few weeks—five sessions, 30 minutes each—with Ring Fit Adventure. I’m sore in parts of my body that have never been sore, and instead of feeling embarrassed, I’m feeling legitimately empowered. That’s huge for me, and potentially opens up an entirely new way of thinking about my relationship with my body.

The last time I meaningfully tried a form of exercising that wasn’t running was, in fact, Wii Fit. Nintendo’s last foray into exercise software is what got me to start actively thinking about posture, a pretty important point for someone who spends most of their day in an office chair. It ultimately proved little more than a passing curiosity, but in the few weeks I spent loading up Wii Fit on a semi-daily basis, it left enough of an impression that I was willing to entertain Nintendo’s larger argument that software would be used to better engage people with their bodies, and it goes beyond the simplistic notion of “gamifying” exercise. It’s more nuanced.

What if software and technology could help people better understand exercise?

Ring Fit Adventure’s JRPG wrapper is good, where exercise routines are spells/attacks, and eventually, some are more effective against specific enemies (i.e. weak to cardio routines, weak to ab routines). The more exercises you do, the more you level up. The more you level up, the higher your attack and defense stats. You can apply buffs—in this case, things like kale smoothies—to help with tough fights. If you’ve played a JRPG— any JRPG—the tropes are all here. It’s an effective framing, especially when you want to give up. The presence of an enemy lifebar that’ll disappear if you dig deep and muscle through another set of painful squats is, however trite, actual motivation to keep going. It’s pushed me over the edge a bunch of times in ways I appreciate, a kind of motivation I suspect either comes naturally for people who legitimately enjoy exercise (this happens to me with running) or a personal trainer yapping, exerting social pressure. The social pressures here are invisible hit points.

But the more time I’ve spent with Ring Fit Adventure, that’s not what stands out, and it’s not what’s helped me get over a personal reluctance to try new forms of exercise, worried I’ll get it wrong, negating the point. When people think of Nintendo games, they think of extremely polished experiences. This comes in a variety of forms, whether it’s the feeling of Mario jumping or Link swinging a sword. In Ring Fit Adventure, it’s the superb attention to detail in commenting on the player’s form, and finding ways to gently coax them into doing better.

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When you pick an exercise/attack, the game shows a character model in proper form, alongside a checklist of things you should do to achieve something similar, i.e. bend knees. To proceed, you need to hit that checklist, and then hold that checklisted form for three whole seconds. If you budge, the timer starts over. This means, at least to start, the game will not proceed until, to the best of its ability, it’s judged you’re ready for the exercise.

The problem with exercise is your form changes over time. Feet shift, arms move. This is especially true a few reps in, when it becomes easy to start cheating and, sometimes, not realize it. During a routine, the game displays a character in the corner modeling the move, while the in-game character reflects your movements. It allows you to easily compare what’s happening, and if necessary, correct form. If you truly leave form, the exercise just stops.

But during reps, there are tiny ways the game tries to keep you on track. If you do the exercise perfectly, your character’s hair lights on fire. Let’s say that while doing a squat, you keep hesitating on dipping your butt all the way down. You’ll still be able to attack an enemy, but because your hair wasn’t on fire, it’s a weaker attack. The game’s message: “You’re cheating yourself and you’ll have to do more exercise to beat this. Now, get your ass down.”

(I should be clear the game is never, ever judgmental about any of this. It doesn’t even blink an eye if you choose to take a break during the middle of a rep, which sometimes happens if you’re exhausted by a particular routine. The game is actually too aggressive, in my mind, about suggesting you end playing the game. Ring Fit Adventure is about helping you out.)

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Sometimes what happens, though, is that I’m doing the form as prescribed by the game and the tracking equipment seems to think I’m doing it right, but it still feels a little off. Ring Fit Adventure also tries to account for this. The ring you’re holding is also a character, and during an exercise, they’ll spout various lines at you. It’s easy to ignore them, but it’s better to keep an eye out; most of the lines are about trying to provide subtle direction about making an exercise as effective a possible. When I was doing a lower press, where I squeeze the ring while placing it face down in front of my stomach, it felt a little too easy. The game then quietly suggested, “Think about pressing in your armpits, as if you’re squeezing something in between them.” When I did that, the exercise felt so much more impactful, and provided validation that, yes, I was doing this right. It was helping me build up confidence.

These are the little things that you wouldn’t pick up while watching a YouTube video, and the very thing that’s kept me away from trying exercises like this. “If I’m not doing it right, and I have no idea I’m doing it right, what’s the point?” Ring Fit Adventure, through a mixture of technology and smart observations about people’s expected behaviors, has an answer.

At the end of the day, Ring Fit Adventure won’t do the exercises for you. Absent a machine that will literally move your body on its own, you’re still gonna have to do the hard work. Right now, I literally cannot do another overhead press because my arms hurt so bad. But if you, like me, have found themselves with a sincere desire to diversify a workout routine and have been looking for a way in, Ring Fit Adventure may help. So far, it’s working for me.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

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