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Posted by The Health Journal on February 1, 2011

Written by Barrett Baker

When it comes to regular exercise, there are as many excuses as there are benefits. A revolution in video gaming systems is changing all of that and providing a way for people to be physically active—sometimes without even knowing it.

This unlikely marriage of fitness and video gaming is known as “exergaming.” The three main systems include the Nintendo Wii, The Xbox 360 Kinect and the PlayStation Move.

These systems rely on player’s body movement to drive the action on the screen. They’ve also caught the attention of the American Heart Association, which has teamed up with Nintendo to promote gaming as part of a healthy lifestyle.

According to activeplaynow.com, a joint Web site between the AHA and Nintendo, nearly 70 percent of Americans are not getting enough physical activity. But in a recent study conducted by the AHA, of the respondents who regularly participate in “active-play” video games, 68 percent say they have become more physically active overall since and 58 percent have started a new fitness activity such as walking, playing tennis or jogging.

“People ask me ‘what’s the best physical activity for me?’” says Dr. Tim Church, chair of the American Heart Association’s Physical Activity Committee. “Well, the best physical activity for you is the one you will do. Finding something you enjoy is absolutely critical.”

For pure fun, Nintendo’s Wii comes with two free startup disks—Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort—that challenge users in virtual canoeing, bowling, sword play, golf and boxing. A gamer can burn up to 125 calories in just 15 minutes using the boxing feature, reports wiinintendo.net, but that’s not much of a boost, considering the average person burns 60 calories an hour at rest, and 100 calories an hour typing on a keyboard.

If you multiply that by the average playing time of 12.2 hours per week, Wii gamers could burn up to 1,830 calories per week. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. A Feb. 2007 study by a professor at Liverpool’s John Moores University in Britain concluded that the average person will only burn about 150 calories an hour playing Wii games, so gaming should not be a substitute for traditional exercise.

Locals Like It

Margie Smith, who’s in her 50s, says her muscles ache after playing the Wii with her husband and their nephew, but the effects are rather one-sided. “We go through the motions of the bowling game just like if we were at the bowling alley, and it kicks my butt,” says Smith, who lives in Toano. “But while I’m getting this huge workout on my right side, I’m not getting any benefit on the left.”

To get a full-body workout, Smith purchased the Wii Fit package that comes with a balance board that also acts as a scale. It has software that allows users to enter their weight, height, age and fitness goals, then tailors games to help improve cardiovascular ability, flexibility, balance, form and strength.

Says Smith, “Wii Fit is like having a personal trainer at home because it gives you an opportunity to test your fitness level every time you step on it, then it suggests areas where you might be weak and provides suggestions on how to concentrate on those weaknesses.”

Amy and Justin Gordon of Hampton recently converted their Xbox 360 into an exergaming system by adding the control-free Kinect option. While Justin prefers the traditional games, Amy is currently using programs such as Your Shape Fitness and a dance challenge called Zumba to get back in shape after having a baby in December.

“She likes [Kinect] because she doesn’t have to go out,” says Justin. “She can stay at home and still get a great workout.”

But does it really count as exercise?

A 2007 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that obese children burned six times as many calories playing Dance Dance Revolution—an electronic dance mat—than they did when playing traditional video games. Another 2007 Mayo Clinic study concluded that college students burned twice as many calories playing interactive video games as they did walking on a treadmill.

However, a study published the same year in the British Medical Journal found that while exergaming via the basic Wii Sports package burns more calories than playing sedentary computer games it’s not at a high enough intensity to count towards the recommended amount of daily exercise for children.

In an attempt to challenge these studies, Electronic Arts gaming company commissioned a 2010 study by the University of Wisconsin to test the EA Sports Active game, now available for Wii, PlayStation3, iPhone and iPodTouch. Researchers said the game passed fitness guidelines for “an effective workout” as dictated by the American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM).

“ACSM sets key guidelines on what constitutes a healthy, active lifestyle. [They recommend] that individuals perform 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five days per week, or 20 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise three days per week,” says Dr. John Porcari, executive director of the La Crosse Exercise and Health Program at the University of Wisconsin. “In terms of intensity criteria, both workouts tested from EA Sport Active were sufficiently intense to be within ACSM guidelines.”

Seniors stand to benefit, too

Dr. Ray McCoy, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology & Health Sciences at the College of William & Mary, is studying exergaming as a way to help the elderly maintain balance and core strength to prevent falls. McCoy and his student assistant, Laura Halley, are specifically looking at Wii Fit’s ability to improve coordination and balance.

Findings won’t be published until the study is completed—McCoy is hoping early May—but so far the researchers have seen some positive results. “The results clearly show that participants can improve their scores on the Wii Fit Balance games significantly over the six-week training program,” says McCoy. “Many of the participants comment on their increased confidence in standing balance and during walking, and their willingness to continue being active. It is hoped that the increased activity will increase their overall wellness and quality of life.”



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