Health and fitness: Getting a Wii bit fitter?
Combining computer games with exercise is the latest way to improve health. Glenda Cooper tests the Wii Fit
I am unbalanced. It’s official. This is not news to my family or, indeed, to any neutral observer, given that I have impersonated a tree, headed imaginary footballs and run round my sofa for the last 30 minutes. But this is the first time I’ve had such a verdict delivered via my television screen.
I’m being insulted in my own home, courtesy of the latest idea to combat couch potato-dom. The success of the Wii video game console over the last year (last Christmas, Amazon sold 1,400 in a 10-minute period alone) has led its makers to develop a new “exergaming” (exercise combined with computer games) product called the Wii Fit, which is to be launched this month.
Exergaming has been around since the 1980s, when exercise bikes were hooked up to video games allowing the user to cycle through a virtual landscape. But the Wii, launched in 2006, was a breakthrough in that it was fun: players hold a wireless remote to mimic real-life sports – swinging it like a tennis racket, or punching the air to simulate boxing – while watching a computer-generated character of themselves (inevitably called a Mii) compete on screen with an opponent.
You can purchase the wii fit at www.exergamefitness.com or by calling 866.245.3036. Exergame fitness specializes in Exergaming equipment for multiple applications.
A study published in the British Medical Journal in February claimed the Wii could have health benefits. Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University monitored children playing the Wii Sports games versus those playing sedentary computer games and found Wii-ers burned an extra 60 calories an hour compared with those playing traditional computer games. They calculated that this could translate into an extra 1,830 calories burned per week. And five schools in Worcestershire even won a national sports award after introducing virtual PE based on the Wii.
But the new Wii Fit game claims to be the first specifically designed to encourage “exercise, improve posture and strengthen your body”. To test this, I invited personal trainer Jim Stubbs to monitor my workout. That is, if he was able to stop crying with laughter at my attempt to hula-hoop virtually.
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.
- Wii Fit will be launched on April 25 costing £69.99. The Nintendo Wii console, which includes Wii Sports, is £179.99; www.nintendo.co.uk. Jim Stubbs can be contacted at Phoenix Exercise Professionals (www.phoenix-coaching.co.uk).
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