How to Motivate Kids to Start Exercising – and Stick With It

hopscotch 2

Photo courtesy of L. Marie’s Flickr (

Starting something new – like regular physical activity – is hard. In fact, the only thing harder than starting something new may be sticking with it. When it comes to getting kids and teenagers moving more, the challenge isn’t getting them off the couch just once; the real challenge is making physical activity a part of their daily lives.

It’s critically important that we find creative new ways to get kids moving more. In July, leading British medical journal “The Lancet” published research asserting that physical inactivity causes 6-10% of deaths from major NCDs (non-communicable diseases), such as type II diabetes, heart disease, and breast and colon cancers. The research linked exercise to mental wellbeing, too. Exercise fosters everything from improved sleep patterns and reduced stress, to stronger relationships, social connectedness and a sense of purpose and value. [1]

Opportunities for kids to engage in regular physical activity are often centered around youth sports. But joining a youth sports team can be a big, scary leap for kids who may be more accustomed to playing video and computer games than moving the ball down the field. Just think: kids can play videogames in the comfort and security of home, without an audience of peers watching. Game engineers design for player psychology, with just the right combination of challenges and motivators to ensure a player feels competent and successful when playing. Players advance at their own speed. Knowledge gained through failure – say, using a huge sling shot to catapult an angry bird into a green pig in a pyramid but missing the mark only just slightly – can be directly applied towards a second chance, where success is that much more likely. So the question is: what if we could use the tricks of game design to help kids who aren’t sporty experience physical activity in fun way that’s more similar to gaming, and thence less intimidating?

The good news is, we can. Borrowing gaming principles to make physical activity appealing to kids who aren’t inclined to be physically active is exactly how Zamzee was born. Our research partners at HopeLab took a close look at academic research on how to motivate regular exercise (by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, for example) and popular writing on motivation in the business world (by Daniel Pink). Then they made up a nifty acronym, CAMPR, so the rest of us can understand and remember what these researchers are talking about. Here’s a quick explanation:

Question: What is the most optimal context for starting something new and sticking with it?

Answer: Players need to experience…

            C            competence: feeling capable and effective

            A            autonomy: having freedom and a sense of control

            M            mastery: growing and improving

            P            purpose: pursuing goals and aspirations

            R            relatedness: belonging and connecting with others

An experience that is optimized so that a participant can quickly develop competence, exercise their autonomy, continually improve their mastery, make progress towards their purpose, and feel an underlying sense of relatedness – well, that’s an experience likely to keep a participant engaged.

I like the new tent

Photo courtesy of Terren in Virginia’s Flickr (

Of course, CAMPR manifests differently for everyone. An MVP may thrive and feel strong relatedness and autonomy on an all-star team on its way to winning the state championship. But what about the kid who doesn’t like being active or sweating? He needs a different mix of CAMPR to succeed.

Zamzee is designed to jumpstart physical activity in kids who may not be naturally inclined to move – and to keep them moving by providing the right combination of incentive and reward. Here’s how the CAMPR principles are integrated within the Zamzee experience.

            Competence: feeling capable and effective. Everybody earns Pointz after passing a small threshold for the intensity of their physical activity, and everybody has an equal opportunity to earn bonus Pointz. Whether your average is 10 minutes or 100 minutes of physical activity per day, you start earning bonus Pointz when you start beating your average.

            Autonomy: having freedom and a sense of control. Kids choose how they move on Zamzee. They can decide whether to accept a Challenge to escape a T-Rex or steer a spaceship away from an alien attack. Then they decide how to move in order to complete that Challenge – whether it’s running outside with friends, or dancing at home in their room. Each choice is equally valid and rewarded.

            Mastery: growing and improving. Persistence on Zamzee is recognized through collecting badges and passing levels. Whether it takes you a few months or the whole year, everybody has an equal opportunity to reach Level 17: the Zen Master.

            Purpose: pursuing goals and aspirations. In addition to badges and levels, rewards add extra incentive for kids to move. Whether it’s a donation to charity or a new pet for their avatar, kids choose what to work towards and focus on achieving it at their own pace.

            Relatedness:  belonging and connecting with others. Moving is more fun with friends, which is why kids can friend each other on Zamzee, or show their appreciation for a really cool Wham by liking it. Families can keep track of their activity in one place using Family View, making movement a group activity.

One additional thing we think a lot about is fun. Fun is perhaps the most powerful way to keep kids engaged. And we try to create a sense of playfulness and fun throughout the Zamzee site, from Whamz to Challenges to pop-up messages from Zed when you log in.

Can the CAMPR principles motivate kids to be so physically active they become the next LeBron James? Maybe. But consider this: we’ve seen that kids using Zamzee are moving 30% more than kids who aren’t. To us, that’s evidence we’ve designed an experience that gets kids moving and keeps them moving. We’re proud of that, because we know moving more will positively impact kids’ health. Not just for the short-term, but for their entire lives. Now that’s exciting.

Kids jumping in Lake Michigan

Photo courtesy of Daniel Marchese’s Flickr (

[1] Das, Pamela and Richard Horton. (2012). “Rethinking our approach to physical activity.” The Lancet, 380(9838): 189 – 190. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61345-8

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