IRVINE, Calif. — Boom times in fitness have landed online as social media influencers, wearable device companies and online programs have collected huge followings.

Brick-and-mortar gyms have used a bag of tricks containing membership discounts, relentless email reminders, maybe even slash prices from a small retail selection or juice bar.

But online companies are coming up with their own incentives to keep customers coming back borrowing from techniques found in video games.

What You Need To Know

  • A UCI study shows that competition can help people lose weight

  • The study looks at leader boards, similar to ones used in video games, and uses self-reported data to reach its conclusions

  • One conclusion in the study is that diet competition is not effective

  • Market research companies vary in their forecasts for growth in the online fitness industry, but largely agree that it should grow by tens of billions over the next five years

That’s the subject of a study done by academics, including Behnaz Bojd, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine specializing in information systems.

Massive social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter encourage participation with like buttons or emojis, a technique companies could lean on. 

But Bojd focused on competition, specifically leader boards listing the rankings of all entrants. Such rankings have long been a fixture of video games, all the way back to pinball games in bar corners that kept a digital record of the top performers.

But what kind of competition is best?

Bojd looked at two kinds: diet competitions, where people tried to lose the most weight by percentage and fitness competitions that record weight loss.

“We saw that for diet competitions people are not doing so well in small competition sizes,” Bojd said. “If a small group size is a proxy for intense competition, it’s really not working for diet competition, but it actually works for exercise goals.”

Bojd took it further: “Our data shows the competition only works with the exercise and with dieting it’s backfiring.”

The study sticks to a narrow concept, but keeps the details general. While it focuses on competition, it doesn’t drill down on what exercises people do or how often. Nor does it capture the specific nature of the diet challenges. Participants self reported their results and chose which competition to do. Some may have done more than one.

But Bojd said the data can apply to established companies like the Apple Watch, which has been beefing up the fitness offerings in its app store. She said they could market family competitions, directly corresponding to her findings that exercise competitions in small groups can be effective.

Fitness competitions have already gained prominence on social media platforms like Instagram, Bojd said. Some offer financial incentives, another tool to get customers to buy into fitness.

The fitness industry has seen a tumultuous few years, and new apps and exercise concepts are always emerging. With a low financial barrier to entry, even small advantages can be scaled.

And now, the online fitness industry, a natural for leaderboards and competitions, is on an upward trajectory. Marketing and research companies vary in their growth predictions. Allied Market Research forecasts growth to nearly $60 billion by 2027 from just over $6 billion in 2019. The firm attributes the growth to a disruption in the traditional fitness industry and attempts by consumers to optimize their time. Peloton Inc. saw a huge bump in stock value during the pandemic, which has since dropped and flattened along with the rest of the market.

Bojd’s findings show an extra trick they can lean on to get there.