By Published: Dec. 2, 2015

Sure, there are endorphin junkies who love to enter the ‘pain cave,’ but for those who’d rather play, fleeing from ‘zombies’ does the trick, CU-Boulder researchers find

It may not be obvious in running-crazy Boulder, Colorado, but the vast majority of Americans don’t run—less than 20 percent, according to one 2013 survey—and more than half tell pollsters that they do not enjoy the sport.

“I love the misery of running,” humorist Garrison Keillor writes mockingly. “I love the misery of feeling I should run more, hundreds of miles, and do it on my knees.”

Arielle Gillman

Arielle Gillman

On the flip side, millions who run regularly say they can’t imagine life without it, and studies have confirmed that running can indeed trigger a brain-chemical high. Many dedicated runners are motivated by performance goals—they like knowing how hard they are working, or how many more miles or feet of climbing they are accumulating during a run.

Lucky for them, there are—as they say—apps for that. Most mobile fitness apps, in fact, are geared toward such quantitative-minded, goal-focused runners.

But for some, all that tallying is anything but motivating.

“If they spend their whole exercise time wondering how much further they have to go, how many more miles, it just makes time seem to drag,” says Arielle Gillman, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

There also are, as it turns out, apps for those not as motivated by sweat, endorphins and health goals, which essentially turn exercise into a game. That allows some people to dissociate from perceived discomfort or drudgery and enjoy it more.

“When you turn exercise into a game, you are no longer just running for your health or to run five miles,” Gillman says. “You are ostensibly running to be part of a virtual-reality experience.”

Curious about how both approaches might influence exercise outcomes, she put runners on treadmills in the CU CHANGE exercise lab at CU-Boulder’s Center for Innovation and Creativity to compare a traditional Nike performance monitoring app and a game called Zombies Run!

The latter purports to send exercisers on one of 200 scripted “missions” in a zombie-infested world, providing narrative and music and requiring them to speed up when they are being “chased.” Launched in 2012, Zombies Run! now boasts more than a million users.

Dedicating too much mental attention to the end goal of regular physical activity during any single exercise session might cause an individual’s perceived difficulty of that exercise session to increase.”

For the study, Gillman gave half the runners the traditional app and half the zombie app, then assessed them psychologically every five minutes during 30-minute treadmill runs on motivational state; whether they were feeling more “playful” or “serious”; affect—how good or bad were they feeling; and perceived exertion.

The most significant finding in “Effects of Performance Versus Game-Based Mobile Applications on Response to Exercise” (Annals of Behavioral Medicine, September 2015), was that those being chased by zombies achieved a more “dissociative” state.

“They spent more time thinking about things besides actual running,” says Gillman, a daily runner who often listens to podcasts while she runs.

And while there was no measurable difference in goal orientation between the two groups, individuals who reported being less focused on goals and monitoring reported better responses to exercise, a more positive affect and lower perceived exertion.

“(D)edicating too much mental attention to the end goal of regular physical activity during any single exercise session might cause an individual’s perceived difficulty of that exercise session to increase,” conclude Gillman and her co-author, Angela Bryan, professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU-Boulder.

“Such a perception might impact subsequent behavior, particularly for people who are not motivated to keep higher-order goals in mind. Therefore, increasing the enjoyment of an exercise bout through the development of new and innovative mobile technologies is an important avenue for future research.”

Gillman says she limited the study to treadmill running to better control conditions, but hopes to take the experiment outside in the future.

In the meantime, she’s also interested in studying the effects of “cannabinoids” on exercise performance, motivation and recovery, now that cannabis is legal in Colorado.

“There is a lay perception that (cannabis) makes you lazy. OK, we’re in Colorado, the most physically active state in the U.S.: Is (legalization) going to cause problems?” says Gillman, who published a commentary on the subject in the July 16 issue of Sports Medicine.

“On the other hand, we have ultra runners in the popular media reporting that they use (cannabis) in their training, that it reduces nausea, which is a huge issue for them, and reduces pain, things like that.”

“This interest in marijuana use, its influence on health behavior (or not), and potentially its influence on self-regulation and cognitive function, are a new direction for Arielle and for our lab,” Bryan says.

Clay Evans is a free-lance writer and longtime Boulder journalist.