Gaming Your Way to Fitness

Boxer holding video game controller
iStockphoto

Are those mail-order kickboxing tapes gathering dust on top of your VCR? Before you pop them in, consider some of the advantages and disadvantages of sweating in the privacy of your own home.

  

The Pros of Home Workouts

  • It's Cheap
    Many exercises can be done at home for free or for the price of a few sets of dumbbells. Workout videos are another option, generally only $10 to $20--significantly less than a monthly gym membership. But for home fitness requiring more pricey equipment (including Wii Fit at $89.99), think about whether you're sure you'll stick with it before splurging.
  • It's Easy
    It's hard enough to find time to work out without having to trek back and forth to the gym. Home workouts can be easier to fit into a busy schedule. Only have 15 minutes? Want to work out at 2 a.m.? Much like those yoga instructors on television, home fitness is flexible.
  • Your Eyes Only
    For people who are just beginning a regular exercise routine or who are self conscious about exercising in front of others, home workouts can provide a more comfortable space.

  

The Cons of Home Workouts

  • You Gotta Have Friends
    Staying committed to exercise is easier if you do it with a friend, and the gym is a great place to meet like-minded and like-scheduled workout buddies. Of course, you can always invite a friend over for a joint home yoga session, but that leads to the next point...
  • A Tight Squeeze
    It requires some creativity to adapt a living room to a workout space. And it means sacrificing a gym's variety of equipment, powerful air circulation and tailored facilities.
  • Sticking With It
    The routine of going to the gym--and the fact that you're paying for it--can motivate people to go regularly. And sometimes getting out of the house can help clear the mind of daily stresses, making workouts seem relaxing rather than a chore.
  • Don't Try This at Home
    If you're going to be doing demanding exercises, it's important to do them correctly so you don't hurt yourself. Although video and TV instructors are great for motivation, they can't check your form and correct your technique like gym trainers can.

How Fit Are You?

NPR science editor David Malakoff takes the President's Challenge in the NPR gym

NPR science editor David Malakoff takes the President's Challenge in NPR's very tiny gym, with correspondent Brenda Wilson counting his sit-ups. Heidi Glenn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Heidi Glenn, NPR

Before you start the home workouts, you can find out how fit you are with a new test from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

  

It's an adult version of the test kids take in school, complete with push-ups, sit-ups and a flexibility test. At www.adultfitnesstest.org, you can find instructions on the President's Challenge Adult Fitness Test, and enter in your results for an online evaluation.

Video games designed to provide a workout are becoming big business.

As proof, look no further than last week's Games for Health national conference at which health researchers and game-makers showed off their latest innovations. Specialized games about protein folding and nutrition shared a venue with Nintendo's new mass-marketed exercise game Wii Fit, set to hit U.S. stores on Monday.

The Wii fit is the latest entry in a string of exercise video games, or "exergames." Nintendo's Power Pad, released in the 1980s, traded hand-held controllers for a floor mat that users jumped on. But the first exergame to make a real splash was Dance Dance Revolution after it was introduced in Japanese arcades in 1998. When schools in West Virginia documented that DDR helped kids dance their way to fitness, researchers and game-makers took note.

David Monk was one such game-maker. He works with Xergames Technology, which began making a similar game once it saw DDR's potential. "DDR kind of started it all, but it's going places that we don't even know yet," Monk says.

The buzz around active gaming has propelled the popularity of the Wii gaming console, which became a huge hit when Nintendo unleashed it in 2006. There's a lot of chatter that Wii games motivate old folks and families to get up and move around. Now, with its new Wii Fit, Nintendo steps up the competition.

The Wii Fit utilizes a balance board and features games specifically designed to boost areas such as balance and strength. One new game involves a hula-hoop challenge, which exercise researcher Alastair Thin demonstrated at the conference in Baltimore. Thin played a Japanese version of the game, on display by the group Gaming4Health.com.

Standing on the Wii's motion-sensitive board, Thin drew a crowd as he dipped and turned to catch on his head virtual hoops being tossed at him.

The game has obvious amusement value. Thin says that at first glance, the Wii Fit might not appear to have exercise value. "I know what exercise is. I can measure exercise on a bike or treadmill," he says.

But when Thin hopped off the board a few minutes later, he put his finger to his wrist to take his pulse: 156 beats per minute, definitely in the range of aerobic activity.

Getting Video Games Down to a Science

Thin teaches exercise physiology in the much colder climate of Edinburgh, Scotland, at Heriot Watt University. For students there, the weather can be an obstacle to outdoor exercise for months out of the year.

So when Wii Fit first hit store shelves in Great Britain last month, Thin was ready in his exercise lab to test it out. He bought two game consoles and recruited 11 students to try the games. Each wore a heart rate band so he could measure the workout's intensity.

In the step-aerobics game, similar to Dance Dance Revolution, Thin says students had trouble with coordination. Their heart rates rose to the equivalent of a moderate walking pace of 3.4 miles an hour. By comparison, Thin says, six minutes of hula-hooping brought the students to the cusp of a moderately intense cardiovascular workout.

"It's not just your hips — it's your arms, your shoulders, your legs, your ankles. Everything's working there and you're exercising really pretty hard," Thin explains.

The point of exergaming is that it's supposed to be more appealing than just walking or running on a treadmill, and Thin says his students told him the Wii Fit was fun.

What's unclear is whether they would have had the same experience without doing it in a group. Was it the camaraderie or competition that kept them going? These are the questions Thin wants to answer with additional research.

Meeting a Need

Thin says he's concerned that all the hype over virtual gaming will drown out the need for serious assessment.

"That's why I think it's very important to get ... good measurements as to just how much physical activity is involved," he says.

Studies that show a proven benefit could help push exergaming into more public spaces such as schools, gyms and recreation centers.

Nintendo isn't the only company hoping to capitalize on the games.

XerGames Technology of California is already moving in that direction with its interactive Sportwall, which looks like a 12-foot electronic whack-a-mole game.

Brian Batease, who runs the game company Lightspace Corp. in Boston, says that if exergames get kids up and moving around, that can't be a bad thing.

And he says there's a big demand. "Anything that's going to get kids off the couch ... it's going to be huge."

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