Healthy Gaming: Stay Fit While Playing Esports

Written by Haylesh Patel, MSc - Esports Exercise Physiologist for UCI Esports

Why should I bother working out to improve my fitness? It’s not going to improve my game play; I would rather play solo queue

This is something that I have heard time and time again from some top-level players.  In the most basic sense, yes, they are correct in one part, if they do not play their specific game they will not improve or maintain their current skill level.  However, this can be taken too far by spending too much time in solo queue or playing in general that it becomes inefficient and counterproductive.  This occurs when balance in their life is not present and the other aspects of life are sacrificed.  These aspects include things like adequate sleep, good nutritional choices, post-match reflection/analysis and social activities just to name a few.  The resultant effects of this imbalance ranges from an increase in poor decision making, increased tilt, reduced reaction time, increases in symptoms of anxiety and depression among other things.

My response to the above statement is always the same and is not going to change as there is overwhelming evidence that shows with only the slight addition of new habits (physical activity, improved nutrition, social activities) can have a profound effect on an individual’s health and overall performance.

Why would you want to stay fit while competing in esports?

There are a few reasons why someone may be interested in improving their overall fitness.  But specifically, for esports, here are a couple of reasons why it may be beneficial:

  • Help prevent physical and mental burnout
  • Improve and maintain peak performance
  • Reduce fatigue levels
  • Counteract the negative effects of sitting (gaming is a sedentary activity by nature)
  • Agreeable changes to cognition (improved stress resilience, memory, learning, reaction time)
  • Potentially live longer (greater cardiovascular fitness may lead to a longer life)

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the benefits, but it highlights that the changes are many and varied in nature.

What evidence does the scientific research show?

A recent article published in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise[1] showed that a relatively small bout of high intensity exercise on a stationary bike improved the in-game performance of a group of League of Legends (LoL) players.  Participants in the study performed 20 minutes of high intensity exercise on a stationary bike, followed by a 20-minute rest period, prior to playing a custom match of LoL.  When a comparison was made between how many targets were eliminated by the test subjects between the two conditions (exercise and non-exercise). The subjects eliminated a greater number of targets when they had completed the exercise prior to playing the match, compared to no exercise beforehand.

This is such a fascinating finding from this study.  Just 20 minutes of exercise and they saw an improvement in the players ability to eliminate targets in game.  Twenty minutes is the same amount of time as it takes you to eat lunch, take a shower, vacuum the house, make and drink a cup of tea.  It really isn’t that much time at all.  Other research has shown positive changes to the body with exercise sessions that last only 5 minutes in duration.[2] Here is a great article by the New York Times where they interview a researcher named Dr. Martin Gibala.  He has been investigating what is the shortest workout that you can do to see physical benefits within the body.

Performance research with esports is severely lacking and the article is the first of its kind that shows a positive association of gaming performance and participation in exercise.  This research is highly encouraging as previous research has shown the profound effect of even short amounts of exercise on cognitive and physical performance in humans.    

What exercise should I do? How much and for how long?

A good place to start is with the recommendations that are set by leading exercise and sports medicine organizations and governing bodies, such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).  They recommend the following amount of exercise per week: 150 minutes of moderate activity per week + 2 x week of strengthening exercises.  That works out to be around 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on 5 days of the week, with two sessions of strengthening exercises during the week.  Even if you cannot commit to that level throughout the week, even a short 5-10 minute walk outside will have some benefits to your brain and overall health.

Am I able to balance both high level gaming and a regular exercise routine?

Or if you’re looking to try something different, here is a recent exercise protocol we were doing with our scholarship players:

Interval training workout

  • 5 minutes of exercise total
    • 20 seconds exercise
    • 10 seconds rest

Exercises

  • High knees
  • Mountain climbers
  • Push ups
  • Jumping jacks
  • Burpees

Repeat above exercises twice

Summary

Balance is a key requirement in our lives to be successful in any area of our lives.  When it comes to health there are a wide range of variables that relate and reflect our current health status (height, weight, body composition, blood markers, cardiovascular fitness, nutrition, sleep, fatigue).  We can modify our current health status using various tools and resources (exercise, nutrition, sleep) that modify our current health state.  The time commitment required for some of these aspects is fairly minimal in the grand scheme of things and can potentially yield very positive health benefits for our body that could have long lasting effects.

Editor's Note: For additional resources, please visit NASEF's page on Healthy Gaming


[1] de Las Heras, Bernat & Li, Orville & Rodrigues, Lynden & Nepveu, Jean-François & Roig, Marc. (2020). Exercise Improves Video Game Performance: A Win–Win Situation. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. In press. 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002277.

[2]  Cooper et al. (2016). High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Effect on Young People’s Cardiometabolic Health and Cognition. Current Sports Medicine Reports. July/August 2016 - Volume 15 - Issue 4 - p 245-251