It's an old idea, combining exercise equipment with video games. But no one has nailed the design yet. I'll try to do that today.
For starters, let's assume the videogame/exercise hybrid device exists in a professional gym designed for just this reason. That allows us to design something more expensive and more space-hogging than you might want at home.
Imagine that your exercise equipment is in a three-walled bay, open to the back, with the front and sides featuring large video screens that are synchronized. When you are faced forward, you are immersed in this artificial video world as if you were in a car driving forward.
Now let's talk about the exercise equipment before we design the actual game play. I imagine a variety of pulleys, bars, and pedals that satisfy most of a person's cardio and weight training needs. The hard part is organizing those physical assets to match game play in a way that makes sense. So let's jump to the game itself so you can better understand how to organize the exercise "cage."
The game is called Morph Herder of LowGrav 9. The game player is one of many people in the far future who work as morph herders on low gravity planets. Morphs are vaguely cow-shaped creatures that were genetically engineered to produce valuable pharmaceuticals in their milk. The morph herders fly ultra-light planes over the planet by pedal power alone, which works great because of the low gravity. Your job is to fly low over the alien terrain until you find a morph and tag it while it tries to escape. The tagging allows the mother ship, from which you just descended with your ultra-light, to lock onto the morph with a tractor beam, bring it up to the ship and milk it, then release it unharmed. No morphs die in this game. When you tag them with your tagger gun, they instantly freeze and zip up to your mother ship in a beam of light.
The gym's exercise device would mimic the controls of the ultra-light. You're fighting the wind, so simply turning left requires some muscle to adjust the wings. And you are pedaling from a reclined or standing position whenever you need to pick up speed or altitude. Your glide distance is very long on this low gravity planet, so you need not pedal continuously.
Your arms would need to work hard to navigate your ultra-light, pulling and pushing on the physical control bars in your exercise cage. It also takes some energy to aim the tagging gun because of the wind friction. I can imagine having actual fans in your exercise cage that simulate your movement through the air. And perhaps your entire exercise cage leans left, right, back, and forth to match the motion you are picking.
The idea is to have a full set of arm, chest, abs, and shoulder exercises while in a reclining seat that has bike-like pedals. The resistance would be the equivalent of perhaps 5-10 pound weights, but the catch is that you'll be moving and lifting and pulling for a solid hour. Kids might use less resistance, big people would use more.
I imagine the game being multi-player, so you can see the ultra-lights of the other gym users at the same time on your screen. You'd plug in your headphones to talk with them as if by radio, and either coordinate or compete for "Morph Herder of the Week" honors.
But here's the interesting part of this idea. I have a hypothesis that the body will more readily build muscle for what the brain perceives as necessary. I'll defend that idea in a moment, but first allow me to point out that a movie will stimulate a human's mind in the same way as reality. In other words, a sad movie makes you cry, a scary movie makes you afraid, and so on. You can be fully aware that the movie is fiction while still experiencing it as if your body thought it was real. The videogame I'm describing would have the same impact. You would be aware that it was an artificial story yet your body would likely respond with adrenaline and whatever else happens when you feel competitive.
I have no evidence for my hypothesis that your body builds muscles faster for tasks it feels are necessary for survival. But let me explain my thinking.
We know that people who win competitions experience spikes in testosterone, and that testosterone helps you build muscle faster. And you know that listening to your iPad makes it easier to exercise because it gets you all pumped up. Your brain is continually adjusting your body chemistry to fit the situation. My hypothesis is that the brain distinguishes between important tasks, such as survival (including fictional survival situations), versus unimportant tasks such as yoga. Morph herding is designed to mimic the primal urge for hunting. It is also designed to feel like a job that satisfies our need to complete physical tasks. And because one wrong move in an ultra-light means death, the simple act of steering your vehicle will seem important to your brain. Put all of that together and my hypothesis is that your brain would produce an ideal mixture of chemistry in your body to keep you exercising longer and harder, and to build muscles faster.
At the very least, the videogame distraction might make the time go faster and seem more interesting. But I think the potential might be far more. I think if the set-up stimulated just the right chemistry in your body you would get faster results than you would in a treadmill in the corner of your bedroom. With the treadmill, your brain has no reason to juice up your body chemistry so you can perform better in this trivial and boring task.
I described one type of videogame, but I could imagine lots of variations that use different combinations of the exercise cage. One might involve nothing but pedaling your bike through virtual streets in Paris or other exotic places, following a path of your choice.
I'll be the first one to say the business model I just described probably doesn't work. It would be nearly impossible to sell enough gym memberships to make back the investment of the game design and building out the facilities. But I'm curious whether manipulating body chemistry in just the right way, by controlling external stimulation, produces faster muscle growth. I think it would. It seems to me that evolution would have given us the tools to quickly "tune" our bodies - at least in terms of specific muscle growth rates - for the challenges of survival in any given environment.
What do you think?