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Is Wii gaming as effective for exercise as your usual workout?

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The “exergaming” craze really ignited in the fall of 2006 when Nintendo launched its Wii gaming system. In just two years, over 10 million Wii units were sold just in the U.S. and more than 100 million worldwide, with the numbers still climbing. Exergaming is a cross between video game playing and exercise, and is a growing trend across the world. The standard Wii system uses a handheld remote and an interactive video screen, prompting the player to use real-life movements as if she or he were playing the sport displayed.

Is it fun or exercise?

In a word, it’s both. There’s no denying that there’s a fun element involved – which is a great motivator for those who want to exercise with it. Also undeniable is the fact that any movement at all burns some number of calories, so it’s fair to say that exergaming can be a form of exercise. Some people – such as public education officials in West Virginia, who have made Wii an integral part of the physical education curriculum – place great faith in exergaming’s fitness benefit. Whether it yields a significant cardiovascular or musculoskeletal benefit is another question.

Real-life use and experience

Local families we surveyed enjoy exergaming for fun and fitness in almost equal amounts. Average use was about three times weekly. In most cases, moms use the system for fitness while dads and kids see it primarily as entertainment. Many of the fitness users report that their Wii workout is less intense than the gym or pounding the pavement, but that it’s better than sitting on the sofa or trying to schedule childcare so that they can escape to the gym.

Miryam Chae, a Decatur mother, says, “I think it's great because I don't feel like I'm working out. I love seeing how many calories I just burned playing a game. Plus, I like that it tells you when you're not in balance.” Diana Rugh Johnson is a mom of two and reports, “My primary activity is jogging, but I hate to run in the cold, so the Wii is a life saver in the winter. I generally do 30 minutes in the morning while having my coffee and another 30 after dinner. My husband built a riser for the balance board, which allows me to get a little more of an aerobic workout while doing step aerobics and rhythm boxing. While Wii isn’t the most intense workout in the world, it allows me to add some physical activity to my day without getting suited up in special gear or making sure my husband is home to supervise the kids.”

The research

Exercise scientists at the University of Wisconsin – LaCrosse studied a group of volunteers in their use of a standard Wii system with the Wii Sports bundle. The group was evenly divided by gender, and all participants were 20 to 29 years old. They were asked to simulate the actual body movements one would make in boxing, baseball, tennis, golf and bowling. The researchers studied two benchmarks of fitness: “VO2 max”, which is maximum oxygen uptake, and maximal heart rate.

The study results

The researchers found that the Wii games offered an appreciable increase in each benchmark. As common sense suggests, the bigger a player made his or her movements, the greater the fitness impact. Only the boxing game was found to meet the standard of maintaining or improving cardiorespiratory endurance.1 However, the other games offered a calorie burn as well, in this decreasing order: tennis, baseball, bowling and golf.

If you’re looking to improve your fitness level, the bottom line is this: actually playing a game will offer a greater fitness result than simulating it with video. For example, conventional sparring in a boxing ring burns 10.2 calories per minute, while Wii boxing burns about seven. But if your choice boils down to exergaming or no exercise at all, then Wii is your way to go. It may also be useful in a few “outside-the-box” ways:

  • Exergaming can introduce kids to various sports or forms of exercise – and if that’s the case, parents can use their interest levels to guide decisions about signing up for soccer camp, dance lessons and the like.
  • It can also be a great rainy-day activity to release some pent-up energy when it’s impractical to get outside (and unfathomable to drop in to your local bounce-house AGAIN).
  • People without the full use of their bodies – those who use wheelchairs or are stuck temporarily in a cast – may find exergaming to be a fun and useful fitness tool.
  • The visual and physical demands of exergaming may also serve as an informal type of therapy for those who need help with spatial perception or proprioception (the ability to sense where one’s body is in the spatial field).

For fun or fitness, exergaming is a trend that is here to stay. Each new generation of the gaming systems seems more popular than the last. Balanced with plenty of participation in real-life exercise, sports or play, exergaming can be an entertaining way to work a bit more movement into each day.

1Cardiorespiratory endurance improvement threshold as defined by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

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