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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