The Newsroom    Published Thursday, Jun. 27, 2013, 1:53 PM
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Working out with the walking dead

Having trouble getting motivated to exercise? Well, a University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston behavioral-science researcher has come up with something that should get you off the couch and moving.

Zombies.

That’s right, the walking dead — as presented in a smartphone “audio adventure” app called “Zombies, Run!”

UTMB assistant professor Elizabeth Lyons recently received a $140,000 grant from the American Heart Association to study the efficacy of the game in encouraging people to increase their activity levels. “Zombies, Run!” is designed to be used by walkers or joggers, and each of its audio “missions” is accomplished by actually walking or running, as monitored by a smartphone’s GPS or accelerometer.

“It’s this very compelling narrative that plays out in fake radio transmissions that come to you on your phone headset — if you’re running outside in the dark, it really is like you are out scrounging for supplies after a zombie apocalypse, and this guy is radioing to you where you should go and telling you about things that are going on,” Lyons said. “The nice thing about the game is that it uses the power of narrative to create a vehicle for behavior change.”

In the study, which will involve 40 people, Lyons will compare the activity level of participants using the app with those not playing the game. Online monitoring via the game’s social networking system will give Lyons a real-time window into participants’ activity levels, which will also be measured directly with armband accelerometers worn for a week at the beginning of the study and also at the six- and twelve-week marks.

Lyons believes that the end-of-the-world audio narrative — which directly involves the player, referring to him or her as “you” — could hook people who would otherwise remain sedentary into initiating and continuing exercise.

“Starting an exercise program involves lots of pain and lots of fatigue, especially for people who are sedentary and overweight,” Lyons said. “I’m interested in using games to distract people from that, and some of my other research has shown that narrative is really the most distracting thing.”

The fact that this narrative happens to be about zombies is more or less incidental. “It’s an excuse to put these characters that you’re growing to know and love in danger and put you in danger, move the plot along and have stuff continually happening,” Lyons said.

It also makes possible an aspect of the game that study participants aren’t likely to forget: a random 60-second “zombie chase” mode, in which players have to walk faster or run to escape audible undead pursuers. “A transmission comes through saying, zombies detected at however many meters, and you have to speed up by a certain percentage to outrun them,” Lyons said. “You can get really competitive when zombies are chasing you.”


 




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