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How a video game can get you off the couch and in shape

By Lauren Ober [01.19.11] Seven Days Vermont

As I stand with feet squarely on the ground, about shoulder width apart — a confident, athletic stance — a glowing green hoop appears above my head. I reach up to grab it, pull it down over my shoulders and set it at my waist. Then I swing my hips.

And swing.

And swing.

And swing.

The hoop wobbles at first, then sets to spinning. Soon a second, orange hoop appears around my waist. I’m not sure how it got there. Magic, perhaps. I can’t worry about that. I just focus on rotating my midsection with at least some vigor to keep the two hoops from dropping to the ground.

All of a sudden, there are explosions. Tornadoes of color sweep around me. Damn, this Hula-Hooping is dangerous. But I won’t be distracted. I have to keep those hips swinging and those hoops spinning.

A third hoop — this one yellow — lands around my waist. Then a fourth. I swing even faster, until my torso feels like it’s about to come loose from my body.

Not surprisingly, I get overwhelmed by all the hoops. They’re teetering and bobbling. I can’t keep them all spinning. And the explosions! I’m feeling shell-shocked. I can’t take this. My core and I are too weak.

One by one, the hoops slow down. The paltry centrifugal force I’m generating is not enough to keep them aloft. Soon they drop to my feet.

I am defeated. Worse, I’m out of breath. From Hula-Hooping. On an Xbox.

My score (of course this is a competition; why else would I be Hula-Hooping? I’m not 8, or a festival-going hippie) is a measly 176. Out of how many, I don’t know. I just know it’s no good, since my hooping opponent racked up twice as many points.

“With some practice, that score will come right up,” says the disembodied cheerleader voice coming from the giant flat-screen television in Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center lounge. Thanks. That’s really helpful.

It takes a minute for me to process that playing a video game has just made me a bit puffed. Not only was I not sitting on the couch, mashing my thumbs into some ergonomically designed controller, but I was moving around enough to develop a faint sheen of sweat on my brow. I needed to shed a layer, such was my level of exertion.

This, apparently, is the future of exercise: video-game-assisted workouts. It even has its own pleasing portmanteau — “exergaming.”

In 2010, the American Council on Exercise named exergaming one of the top-10 fitness trends of the year. That was before the release of the latest gaming consoles, the PlayStation3 Move and the Xbox Kinect, which became available to consumers in September and November, respectively. The ACE predicted that exergames, such as Wii Fit, will increasingly make inroads into fitness clubs and supplement more traditional workouts.

No such full-scale transition has happened in Vermont, where we still prefer more analog ways of getting fit. But even here, people are using exergames to enhance their regular workouts, or as a springboard to starting a fitness regime.

Recent advances in gaming technology have produced equipment that would have seemed unimaginable just 10 years ago, but the basic concept of exergaming isn’t new. Its inception can be tracked back to the 1980s, when virtual-reality technology was beginning to take off. Back then, exergames consisted of exercise bikes that allowed users to pedal through a virtual landscape.

Because the equipment needed to operate such early systems was clunky and expensive, exergaming wasn’t an option for most people until the late 1990s. Then came the release of Dance Dance Revolution, which was cost effective and required few peripherals.

But it was a workout. Anyone who has ever tried DDR, either on a home console or at an arcade, knows it tests even the most coordinated, cardiovascularly superior athletes.

In 2006, Nintendo released its Wii console. The Wii Fit followed in 2007. Since then, exergaming has taken off, as companies see money to be made in physically interactive gaming.

Exergaming systems all use slightly different technologies to achieve the same result — helping the user burn more calories than he would playing World of Warcraft at home in his underwear. The Wii Fit uses the Balance Board peripheral that gamers stand on while playing; it calculates balance, body mass index (BMI) and body control. The Kinect uses a depth sensor with an infrared laser to determine body position. It also incorporates 3-D imaging and face-recognition software, which scans users’ faces to retrieve their profiles and their fitness progress every time they play.

More like the traditional Wii, the PlayStation3 Move uses a motion-sensing game controller — a glowing orb set atop a wand-like device that looks like a toy microphone. As such, the Move is the least popular and sophisticated of the three current options.

Wii Fit games range from yoga to ski slaloming to the curiously named rhythm boxing. Kinect games include EA Sports Active 2, Kinect Sports and Your Shape Fitness Evolved, which includes punching blocks, Hula-Hooping and a Simon-like game called Light Race that you play with your feet. The PS3 Move offers Zumba Fitness, Get Fit With Mel B (is a former Spice Girl) and a game called Sports Champions whose challenges seem more Dungeons & Dragons than gym rat — pulling a bow, lunging with a sword and blocking attacks with a shield.

With such a broad range of exergames, video-game companies are hoping to lure both serious gamers and those who might never try games if not for the fitness component. Lauren Nishikawa is in the serious gamer category, and today at Champlain College she is my exergaming archrival.

The 23-year-old is a graduate of Champlain’s e-gaming program and currently works as a project manager at the Emergent Media Center, so she knows her games. Working out on her own at a traditional gym doesn’t appeal to her. At present, Nishikawa owns both the Wii and Xbox Kinect systems; in a good week, she says, she exergames at least once a day.

“It’s something that’s easy to do before I go to work, or when I come home at the end of my day,” Nishikawa says. “It’s easier for me to fit it into my schedule.”

Another draw: The machine takes care of the often tedious job of recording your progress. Unlike conventional exercise equipment — a jump rope or free weights, say — the consoles can track your achievements and give you encouragement. It’s like having a personal trainer built into your television.

For people who feel self-conscious about exercising in a gym, exergaming is a good at-home alternative, says Caleb Vallencourt, fitness director at the Edge’s South Burlington and Williston locations. Plus, he adds, “Anything to get people off the couch is fantastic.”

But are video-game workouts as good as the real thing? While exergaming may be great for those committed to a sedentary lifestyle, research suggests it’s no substitute. Exergames provide light-to-moderate physical activity, while recommended exercise involves moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, says Dr. Connie Tompkins, assistant professor of exercise physiology at University of Vermont.

“It’s better than nothing, and it’s better than conventional video games,” says Tompkins, who owns a Wii Fit and admits to working up a sweat playing Wii Boxing. But, she emphasizes, that’s not a viable alternative for traditional exercise.

Tompkins, who is about to start a free weight-management program for overweight teens, likens exergames to workout DVDs. They’re fun for a while, until interest peters out. People don’t stick with games long enough to see results, most often because they become repetitive, says Tompkins. She points to research that shows the novelty of exergames typically wears off within a couple of months of first playing.

That was Nancy Kaplan’s experience with exergaming. The Burlington city councilor, bought a Wii Fit a couple years ago thinking it was the perfect compromise to get her “couch-potato kids” moving. They moved a little, but then they stopped.

“As one might have suspected, they and I used it frantically for a few weeks,” Kaplan writes in an email. Then the kids got Wii tennis elbow, and Kaplan pulled a muscle doing Wii Yoga. Needless to say, the Wii Fit isn’t used much for exercise in their house anymore.

More dedicated, perhaps, are people like Nishikawa and PS3 Move user Josh Sled, of South Burlington, who are devoted gamers seeking some physical benefit from their hours spent behind the controller. Sled, who describes himself as “not an active guy,” got the PS3 Move and ordered the EA Sports Active 2 game with the intention of making a life change regarding his fitness. And he’s doing it. Like Nishikawa, Sled has exergamed nearly every day since he got the game in November.

“I get a serious workout without the time/overhead or anxiety of leaving the house, and with enough variety to keep the exercises interesting,” he writes in an email.

Nishikawa’s practice on the Xbox Kinect shows. After annihilating me in two-player Hula-Hooping at the Emergent Media Center, she proceeds to spank me in table tennis, wipe the floor with me in beach volleyball and flat-out murder me in the ridiculous Light Race.

But I rally. I crush her in sprinting, javelin and smashing blocks. I’m calling it a tie, despite a fairly convincing thrashing, and leave our e-sparring match feeling slightly fatigued and moderately demoralized.



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