In September of 2019, Jen was in a rough place. After being told as a teenager that the sports she wanted to play were just for boys, years of an on-and-off relationship with fitness due to a series of injuries, an increasingly restrictive and frustrating diet, a pregnancy, self-consciousness about her physical appearance, sleep deprivation, and mounting anxiety, Jen was now in the hospital being told she needed gallbladder surgery. She was terrified.
But, her doctors said, there was an answer. Jen could avoid the necessity of surgery if she underwent a drastic lifestyle change. She had to start eating better, and she had to start being physically active. Fearful of surgery, Jen was determined to take the out.
And then, the following month, Ring Fit Adventure came out. She got the game and began playing regularly. Slowly, but surely, everything began to change for the better.
“Christmas 2019 I was in a very, very low place mentally,” she told me. “And I sort of lost myself as a mom, and I was coming out with major sleep deprivation cuz that’s what happens when you have a baby. I was feeling down because of the hospital thing and the way I had changed my diet. I couldn’t eat this, that, and the other anymore. I had to give up fat and sugar for a bit…I had a pit of anxiety. I was in a dark hole of anxiety. But I was doing Ring Fit. It was my routine. So it was Ring Fit that kept me going.
“Ring Fit has been the foundation to finding the rest of my confidence.”
Though Jen’s story is unique in its severity, at the heart of it is a theme I’ve heard again and again as I’ve spoken to 15 people who have completed Ring Fit Adventure’s campaign since it came out almost two years ago. Everyone I talked to described a relationship with the fitness game that slowly but steadily transformed their relationships with health, fitness, and their own bodies. People with no fitness experience began working out and adopted new, healthier habits. Those with existing workout routines learned more about their bodies, persisted through the pandemic thanks to the game, or found new social groups to stay fit with.
Through a year of global lockdown when gyms were closed and many were depressed, inactive, and shut in, Ring Fit provided for many a community, a mental health lift, a way to stay active, and a physical challenge to surmount that was possible with just a Switch, the packed in Ring-Con, and a little bit of open space in a living room. It inspired confidence, helped alleviate depression, and yes, built a whole lot of muscles.
Picking Up the Ring-Con
It’s rare for a video game to be associated with physical fitness, given that for most games, the maximum movement required is limited to thumb aerobics on a directional stick. Games like Just Dance, certain arcade and VR games, and a handful of other genres buck that trend, but not since the Wii Fit explosion of over a decade ago have they managed to create the enthusiasm Ring Fit consistently has since its launch in October of 2019.
So why were so many people attracted to Ring Fit Adventure?
For some, like Jen, the motivation was entirely personal, with the game launching at just the right time for their specific needs. Others, like video game developers Greg and Alexis, picked it up thanks to word of mouth. Once an avid cyclist, Greg was feeling a bit out of shape while working from home on their game Chicory: A Colorful Tale, and noticed he was becoming tired and lethargic. But he hated going to the gym or playing sports, and attempts at VR exercise with games like Beat Saber had led to his partner Alexis getting nauseous.
On the recommendation of multiple friends hyping it up, they picked up Ring Fit in January of 2020 and were immediately hooked. It quickly became their go-to routine even before the global event that would see people scrambling to get a copy.
Though it certainly may have become popular enough on its own merits, Ring Fit’s ultimate success is inseparable from the COVID-19 pandemic. For many people around the world, Ring Fit was an answer to a sudden and long-term inability to go to the gym or participate in any physical activity short of taking a walk, run, or bike outside. Suddenly, an easy way to stay active without leaving the safety of one’s home held even more appeal than before.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 also made it nearly impossible to get ahold of Ring Fit for months thanks to numerous manufacturing and distribution bottlenecks that tanked supply of the necessary Ring-Con, leg strap, and game bundles. In late 2020, these eventually were alleviated, and Ring Fit’s sales spiked as the box returned to physical and digital storefronts, moving a whopping 10.11 million units as of the end of Nintendo’s last fiscal year in March 2021. It’s continued to sell well ever since, routinely popping into NPD and UK top 10 lists.
While about half of the people I spoke to managed to pick up a copy of Ring Fit at launch, most of them admitted that their serious relationship with Ring Fit didn’t truly begin until they were stuck at home under lockdown orders.
Ring Fit Adventure
Christine, who prior to Ring Fit had sporadically gone to the gym, summed up a very common motivation for picking it up: working from home almost cuts out incidental exercise entirely.
“I wanted to incorporate more movement into my life, on a more regular basis, to substitute for the lack of movement due to work from home,” she said. “Also, just in general I wanted to get healthier and feel more comfortable in my body. So when this game came out, I was like, ‘Huh, a cool action video game that incorporates exercise and is fun so I don’t have to think about how tired I am or how out of shape I am? Sign me up!’”
Ring Fit subreddit community moderator AshenMoon told me she was in a similar situation, and was struggling to find motivation in more traditional workout routines. Ring Fit was the solve she needed.
“Over the course of early 2020, I started getting frustrated with how I looked,” she said. “This sounds really narcissistic but I would see myself in zoom calls and become very disappointed with myself. So I decided to change a lot of things about myself.”
The pandemic may have been a strong initial motivation, but as anyone who’s ever tried to start a new exercise routine knows, it can be challenging to stick with. And certainly, plenty of people bought the game, tried a few sessions, then left it with the Wii Balance Board to gather dust.
But for those who powered through hours of routines, day after day, battle after battle, what was it that made Ring Fit Adventure stick?
For their entire adult life, writer and editor Quips had never stuck with a gym routine for more than two weeks. “I would not in any capacity call myself an active person,” they said.
While they may have been able to get by otherwise, a lack of an ergonomic work set-up and the onset of the pandemic began to turn their general lack of activity into serious, chronic pain. So in October 2020, Quips started doing Ring Fit in their cramped basement, wearing jeans because they didn’t own any workout clothes. Their first impression of Ring Fit?
“Awful, brutal,” they said. “It was terrible. Because it was so physically demanding in a way that I’d never experienced from any kind of fitness video game before. It kicked my ass. After just five minutes of active time, it was asking me to do things and move my body in ways that, frankly, caught me off guard from a video game.”
But Quips kept going. “I did because I realized even after that five minutes, my lower back didn’t hurt nearly as much. So I just made a connection. This is a good thing for me, even if it sucks right now. So I’m going to try and keep at it.”
Quips started Ring Fit at difficulty level 10, a number out of 30 that the game determines based on physical fitness information the player gives it at the start, though it’s adjustable manually at any time. The difficulty level determines a number of factors, ranging from how vigorous a player needs to move to register certain exercises, to how many reps are in a set of others. Over time, Ring Fit began to get easier for Quips. They gradually cranked up both the difficulty and their overall active exercise time.
Now, Quips says they have more stamina in everyday tasks. Their pain isn’t entirely gone, but it’s been lessened and doesn’t flare up nearly as often. They’ve been rethinking their posture and ergonomics as they work. “I feel like I could actually go out for runs outside and not die,” they said.
For people like Quips and writer Kenneth Shepard, the surprising challenge and steady path to overcome was what kept the game in their lives for so long. Shepard, who regularly runs, was similarly taken aback by Ring Fit’s toughness at first. But just like the others I spoke to, he committed to playing regularly. And, as exercise does with practice, it got easier.
“I stopped being basically bedridden within a few weeks and found myself moving up to higher difficulties pretty often. I played it for months as my primary workout and was happy with my results as I went up the ladder of difficulty.”
Alongside its challenges, another element of Ring Fit that kept players around for the long haul was its focus on overall health rather than scale numbers. Though Ring Fit asks players for some initial basic data about their body type and fitness level to help customize difficulty, the rest of its messaging does not focus on weight. Instead, Ring Fit speaks of exercise as a means to the end of an overall healthy lifestyle rather than a weight-loss tool. It offers regular tips about healthy lifestyle habits, speaking of food in regards to its nutritional value and vitamins rather than calorie counts.
This is a stark contrast to its predecessors, Wii Fit and Wii Fit U, both of which emphasize weight loss and have repeated verbal and visual messages throughout that many felt were discouraging and even fat-shaming. Podcast host Henry Gilbert told me he had previously dabbled in Wii Fit on the Nintendo Wii, but had found its focus on weight and much of its messaging around that topic shaming and discouraging.
“I didn’t like that the first thing [Wii Fit] does is like, ‘You’re fat.’ Yeah, thanks game. But Ring Fit, I wanted to give a try hearing first how it was an RPG-style thing, and it was more directed at hardcore people and not just a mainstream audience.”
Ring Fit user Michael California, who told me they stuck with both Wii Fit and Wii Fit U for a few months apiece back when the games each came out, had a similarly negative experience with them that they felt Ring Fit ran counter to.
“I think my problem with [Wii Fit and Wii Fit U] is that it often felt like I was frankly doing very little legitimate exercise,” they said. “They were so focused on ‘balance’ and they had this kind of toxic measure of your ‘fitness age’ and then if you were fat (which I was), they’d weigh you and plump up your Mii. It was just kind of like… why is this game making me feel bad when I’m trying to use it to improve myself? That plus the whole running-in-place, push-ups, etc. were fine but didn’t feel like the game itself added very much to the experience.”
Not only is Ring Fit an improvement over Wii Fit’s poor messaging. It takes healthy messaging a step further, addressing other important aspects of health like mindfulness, muscle groups, stretching, drinking water, and stress. Several people I spoke to mentioned that alongside the actual exercise, they began stretching more often throughout the day, became more health-conscious in their food choices, drank more water, or even memorized the names of certain muscles thanks to Ring Fit.
“[Ring Fit] actively encourages a healthier relationship to fitness and working out,” said high school teacher Mo Kim. “[I]t constantly reminds you to take water breaks, to stop so that you can play again tomorrow, and to monitor your own well-being so you don’t burn yourself out. It didn’t even shame me when I had to skip three days because my teaching job got super busy! It just welcomed me back and congratulated me for reaching my fifth session.”
Fighting the Fitness Dragon
Ring Fit Adventure’s Adventure Mode has been another secret weapon to keep players hooked. Ring Fit has multiple game modes, including a custom workout mode where players can build their own routines, and a rhythm mode for moving to music. But Adventure is a turn-based RPG where players travel through a world in pursuit of a dragon (Dragaux) who is devastating the populace with toxic attitudes toward health and fitness. Though its story is fairly straightforward and often goofy, it resonated with many, and helped motivate them to keep coming back day after day to see it through to the end.
“I’d tried to do exercises along with YouTube videos, and I would do that sometimes, but it never got into a habit,” Alexis said. “But with Ring Fit I was shocked at how compelling the very silly story was in making me want to find out what happens. I was looking forward to playing it every day partly because it felt good, but partly just to progress the story.”
Mo Kim told me that he especially appreciated the cheesy dialogue, because it reminded him to not take any of it too seriously.
“It’s easier to laugh about how bad your Chair Pose is and how sweaty you’re getting when the entire premise of the game is about fighting a bootylicious purple dragon with the power of squats,” he said. “I was too busy enjoying myself to worry about how I looked or what other people would think.”
Ring Fit speedrunner Sam found that the game’s villain, Dragaux, especially resonated with him. He admits he often struggles in his relationship with fitness as a tool for health rather than shame, but found encouragement in Dragaux’s turn through the story from toxic fitness culture to kinder, more health-focused attitudes.
“As you play through the game, you beat him every time and Dragaux still gets down on himself anyway. It’s like, ‘I’m not good enough. Why is my training not working? This is all wrong.’ And there’s this really nice moment [at the end] where the lesson is Dragaux needs to be kinder to himself. Then in New Game Plus he’s your training partner.”
The lighter, encouraging tone was appreciated in general. Reactions to Ring – the personified Ring-Con who encourages you to exercise – ranged from annoyance to delight; but most found Ring’s regular interjections to be largely helpful. Mike Furst was among those who enjoyed Ring’s constant chattering.
“While performing difficult exercises, hearing a simple ‘Greeeat!’ or ‘Good job!’ after every repetition keeps the vibe positive, not-so-subconsciously encouraging me to keep going,” he said. “Bystanders may find the callouts annoying or grating, but I think the constant positive reinforcement that they induce is integral to the game experience. Playing the game with the TV muted just isn’t as enjoyable.
“And the tips sprinkled throughout the game — to drink water, take breaks, and focus on how I felt instead of how I looked — definitely helped make it an even more positive experience.”
All that said, one specific line delivered by Ring at the end of some levels was divisive among those I spoke with as to whether it was annoying, weird, or hilarious: “Your sweat is so shiny and beautiful!”
While Ring Fit Adventure served as the beginning of a fitness journey for many, it hasn’t been the end. Michael California had acquired 266 of the game’s 281 titles and were actively working on getting the last few when we last spoke. Several people were working through their second or third playthrough of Ring Fit’s Adventure Mode, and a few had begun to implement Custom Workouts alongside regular play in Adventure Mode.
Many of those I spoke to described how they have since supplemented their Ring Fit habits with other workout routines.
“Before I generally enjoyed working out, but [Ring Fit] made it more accessible to my daily routine,” Henry Gilbert said. “I can do this at home in 30 to 45 minutes instead of having to lug myself all the way over to the gym. It doesn’t feel as much of a chore.”
While many people played Ring Fit Adventure alone, some have used it to find communities they are still a part of. I heard about a number of Discord and Slack groups explicitly for groups enjoying and discussing Ring Fit Adventure long-term. Several people also talked positively about Ring Fit’s in-game leaderboards as an encouraging way to exercise alongside and enjoy friendly competition with their friends. Gilbert said it was the most he had enjoyed using the friends list in a Switch game ever.
Others, such as AshenMoon and Mo Kim, got in touch with me for this piece through the Ring Fit subreddit community, where posters regularly share memes and jokes, screenshots of their progress, and most importantly, encouragement with fellow Ring Fit enthusiasts as they try to beat records, finish the story, and generally improve their relationship with fitness through the game.
Two people I chatted with had very unique stories of community. Sam told me all about getting into the Ring Fit speedrunning community, discovering that speedrunning World 1 of the game on maximum difficulty is about a 20-minute, high-intensity workout, and stringing a few of these together a day is a perfect routine for him. He says he frequently streams his runs, noting that while there are techniques to avoid certain more challenging exercises and get better times, he frequently will “try not to cheese it” so he can get a better workout.
Then there’s actor Inel Tomlinson, who needed a way to stay fit for his work during COVID-19 lockdowns. He told me he began playing the game live on his Twitch channel for an audience, which ultimately encouraged him to keep at it — and apparently encouraged others to join in as well.
“I think seeing someone sweating their arse off live on camera urged people to give it a go, particularly during lockdown when they couldn’t necessarily head out. So I decided to turn my streams into workout classes entitled ‘Get Buff or Die Tryin’ to encourage people to work out during lockdown with me whether they had a copy of Ring Fit or not.
“This forced me to work out on set days, too, whether I felt in the mood or not, as others were waiting for me to begin the ‘class’. They were my hypeman, and I was theirs. This helped me to keep it consistent and a part of my routine. Without that audience and community, I’m not sure I would have made it such a big part of my life.”
Suddenly, Thomlinson’s Twitch community began purchasing the game, adding one another as friends in-game to compete to beat one another’s records. Friendly rivalries developed, and Tomlinson said sometimes members of the community would get a new record during his stream, pushing him to try to overcome it live in front of the group. He also did a Ring Fit charity event stream on YouTube with his 60-year-old mother through Eurogamer, raising over $25,000 for the NAACP during the Black Lives Matter movements in 2020.
A few I spoke to have slowly drifted away from Ring Fit, thinking of it as less of a permanent workout routine and more as a springboard to other exercises. Greg, for instance, now runs every day instead of alternating playing Ring Fit with his partner Alexis, and both of them have taken up volleyball. Kenneth Shepard, too, is no longer playing Ring Fit:
“After I finished the story, I eventually started to find myself bored with the game, because without that same sense of progression, I found my mind wandering more often. I’d stop what I was doing to check my phone more frequently, and it started to make it feel like more of an obligation than something I was genuinely enjoying.”
Shepard told me that he tried to vary things up by creating routines in Custom Mode that he’d do while watching TV, which worked for a while. But eventually, even that wasn’t enough.
“Ring Fit was the gateway for me to care about fitness outside of the framing of a video game. So I’ll always be grateful for it, but I was pretty much done hearing the Ring tell me my sweat was shiny and beautiful.”
A Lifetime of Adventure
What all 15 people I spoke to had in common (aside from disliking squats) is that completing Ring Fit Adventure had permanently changed their attitudes toward fitness. For people like Jen, Quips, Michael California, Henry Gilbert, and AshenMoon, the shift was drastic — they went from very little or no physical activity to experiencing healthy weight loss, increased physical ability, and an overall more positive relationship with their own bodies.
For others, like Matt Macomber, the changes were softer — he said that in addition to helping him wake up earlier in the mornings, Ring Fit had made him more open to playing other fitness games. Greg experienced a similarly gentle shift: “It has made me more amenable to the idea of going to a gym,” he said. “I haven’t done it. But I would now, where I wouldn’t have before.”
A common refrain among almost everyone was how Ring Fit made them realize that exercising could be fun, even outside of the game itself. Eric Mango described it as a more accessible tool than trying to just go to the gym and figure things out themselves. “I went from dreading workouts to looking forward to them because it was gonna be a break from everything,” he said.
Quips had a similar experience. “I’m no longer approaching [fitness] with a kind of edgy pessimism, like I’m above it or something. I recognize that I’m in my 30s and things are starting to break. This is normal. But it’s been an effective and supportive tool for managing that stuff.”
Then there’s Mike Furst, who was already accustomed to regular workout routines prior to playing Ring Fit. Though experienced in many of the exercises beforehand, he was surprised to find that the game still had something to teach him. For instance, while he used to balk at doing yoga, Ring Fit showed him how the exercises could improve his posture.
“I used to think only cardio and strength training were worth my time. Performing tens of thousands of reps of the various yoga and ‘total body’ exercises has made me realize that I was shortsighted. I’m thankful that Ring Fit Adventure has taught me how to maintain proper form and posture while working out, moving, or just sitting. Undoubtedly, this has improved my running form.”
For Sam, Ring Fit Adventure meant wrestling with his existing relationship with fitness, and how his attitudes toward working out were healthy or unhealthy. He said he found inspiration in the game’s story and overall treatment of the player’s journey to help him work through those feelings, coming out on the other end with a new sense of gratitude for his body’s abilities, and wanting to give back to it by treating it well.
“I don’t think that I realized before that there is a space where you’re still pushing your body and being kind to it…Being kind to your body doesn’t have anything to do with how hard you work during a workout. It’s just listening to your body and not not getting down on yourself for one of a million not fair reasons.”
Mo Kim followed a similar trajectory. Growing up, he said he felt that working out was always tied to achieving an “ideal” body, and achieving this would require pain. When he did work out, he felt demoralized, because everyone around him seemed so much better. But Ring Fit, he said, made him realize that the kinds of bodies he saw in magazines aren’t realistic for most people. Letting go of that expectation meant he could focus on his own definition of fitness.
“My favorite thing about Ring Fit Adventure is that it empowers you to define what ‘fitness’ is for you. Working out doesn’t have to be your entire life to be meaningful. You don’t have to obsess over the numbers on the scale or the reflection in the mirror every day. You can make it as chill or as challenging as you want. You just need to show up. And before you know it, you will accomplish more than you thought possible.”
When I last spoke to Jen, she had finished Ring Fit’s Adventure Mode three times, was over level 400, and had logged hundreds of hours in the game. She now alternates it with other exercises regularly, switching between hula hooping, Fitness Boxing, Zoomba, yoga, and other types of exercise. Like everyone else I spoke to, she badly wants Nintendo to release a sequel or DLC for the game she loves so much.
But more importantly, Jen’s thriving. Just before lockdown, she took on a new business venture that she said is doing great. She’s less self-conscious, she said, and told me about all the cute dresses she now feels comfortable wearing. And she plays the piano in public now, something she hadn’t felt confident enough to do for a long time.
“Ring Fit was the start of the rest of my life,” she said.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.