In 2013, nearly 34 million Americans played baseball, basketball, football, and hockey as well as assorted other games, without so much as even walking to the field, court, turf, or rink. They instead sat at their computers and participated in online fantasy sports, a hobby that presents both a conundrum and an opportunity for IIT Associate Professor of Psychology Arlen Moller. If his research continues to provide promising results, many of these online fantasy sports fans might convert their couch-potato habits into fantasy-fueled fitness.
“Ironically, fantasy sports have traditionally been focused on paying attention to physical-activity data yet have been entirely sedentary for those playing,” says Moller. “A basic principle of this research involves taking people’s enduring enthusiasm for professional sports and leveraging that enthusiasm to help them become more physically active themselves.”
In a typical online fantasy sports game, participants act as team owners and assemble a roster of professional athletes. Fantasy teams earn points based on the performance of the professional athletes in the team’s roster and compete against teams managed by other fantasy owners. Team owners can control their team’s performance by trading players with other owners, adjusting their rosters each week, and anticipating which professional athletes will perform well.
Although many fantasy sports leagues include significant cash prizes for winners, according to a 2008 survey conducted by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, fewer than 20 percent of owners listed winning money or prizes among their top five reasons for playing fantasy sports. Motivating factors most often include friendly competition, sports experience enhancement, and league camaraderie—forms of social interaction akin to what Moller has also observed.
“In online fantasy sports, message boards attract a high degree of social interaction,” explains Moller, who continues to play in the same two fantasy football leagues he has been in for the past dozen years. “That’s part of what’s so enjoyable about fantasy sports—people can have conversations over the course of the week about the sport itself or different athletes they are following.”
Social support from peers has also been identified as being one of the strongest predictors of success in programs designed to promote physical fitness. In a pilot of Moller’s Augmented Fantasy Baseball Study conducted over summer 2013, participants wore a triaxial accelerometer designed to objectively assess their physical activity on a daily basis. After a baseline-recording period, Moller gave participants individually calibrated weekly goals, increasing their activity each week until all of them were targeting the Surgeon General’s recommended level of physical activity. If they met that goal, they would attain privileges within the online fantasy sports game. Moller says the most important aspect of this study was that each participant’s activity results were recorded on a league online message board, a feature designed to stimulate online discussion.
At the conclusion of the 14-week study, on average, participants significantly increased their steps per week (11,364) from their baseline measurement (8,678). With feedback from this pilot group, Moller launched a 16-week Augmented Fantasy Basketball Study at IIT in November 2013. The top three fitness winners will receive cash prizes or Chicago Bulls tickets.
“An overarching principle that I work under is that when people are introduced to a lifestyle change, the context for change should be something they’re doing for themselves and something that they enjoy doing,” says Moller. “I’m hopeful that if people are considering change for these reasons, it’ll be easier to keep at it and maintain these changes over the long run.”