Exergaming: Getting a Wii bit fitter

Combining computer games with exercise is the latest way to improve health.

The Wii Fit is a wireless plastic board that works in conjunction with the Wii console and has sensors that detect the pressure exerted. So not only does it work out your body mass index, but also your centre of gravity, to assess your posture. Like any good liberal I tend to lean slightly to the left, hence its warning that I’m unbalanced.

Users pick a male or female virtual trainer to guide them through, and there are four types of exercise: yoga, aerobic (such as running or stepping), muscle toning (“jack-knife” sit-ups and lunges) and improving balance (simulating ski slaloms, heading footballs or walking tightropes).

The first thing that strikes me is how long it takes to get any darned exercise done. Wii exercises are short (one to two minutes, until you have repeated them enough times to be considered “safe” to access the longer exercises), and it takes time to switch between the games. Stubbs is not impressed. “There’s no continuity between the exercises as you would get in a class or with a trainer,” he says.

He is also concerned about whether people could hurt themselves. Following the Christmas rush on Wiis, osteopaths reported a spate of neck and shoulder injuries. The darts player James Wade blamed his poor showing in the 2007 World Championship on a stiff back from overdoing Wii boxing.

While Stubbs agrees it’s useful that the Wii Fit can track your posture, he believes it is no substitute for a teacher. “If you were in a class,” he says, correcting my attempt at a Sun Salutation yoga position, “a teacher would pick this up. The problem is it takes 500 repetitions to fix an exercise in your brain; it can take 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions to correct a bad habit.”

But what about weight loss? The average person burns a calorie a minute at rest. I manage 11 calories for a minute’s hula-hooping and eight calories running (which you don’t use the Wii Fit board for: instead you hold the Wii remote, which measures your exertion; the choice of running on the spot or round the room is yours). I clocked up 233 calories after half an hour’s exercise – the exact number of calories in a Kit-Kat.

Prof Tim Cable, who led the original team at John Moores, is about to begin research into Wii Fit. “I can’t anticipate the findings,” he says, “but we expect to see more benefits than with Wii Sports, where we saw children’s heart rates go up to 130-140bpm, similar to what you see in endurance training. It doesn’t replace real sports but it encourages people who are completely sedentary to being more active.”

‘Of course,” says Stubbs, “doing something is always going to be better than sitting around. But if you are serious about exercise, I don’t think this is for you.”

I think he may be right. The original Wii worked best because it was exercise by stealth; the three feverish days my family spent playing Wii Sports last Christmas helped work off a few mince pies, but the amusement was in playing it together (until my mother retired with Wii shoulder). The Wii Fit, by marketing itself as an overt fitness tool, takes some of the fun out of it; rather like having a grown-up join in your game.

I can see how it would work in a competitive classroom for exercise-resistant kids, and I’m glad to have worked out what’s wrong with my posture. But running around the sofa by myself just seems insane, and there’s nothing very Zen about doing a tree pose on a white plastic board.

Then again, at 11pm that night three of us were still competing furiously on the virtual ski slalom. No, there’s nothing much serious about this.

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