Wii Fit leads the way off the couch and into a fitness routine

Published: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 2:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 2:19 p.m.

What kind of video game groans when you step on it? Or asks you why you haven't played lately?

If you've ever tried the Nintendo Wii Fit, you know that voice. It's the same one that tells you your weight and body mass index (BMI) when you step on its balance board.

It's not a science or exercise experiment. It's a growing trend that has taken the video-game nation by storm.

And with obesity now an epidemic in our country, mainly attributed to a sedentary lifestyle of too much TV, video games and poor diets, who would have thought a video game would be the one yanking us off the couch and making us break a sweat?

The Wii Fit offers a wide range of yoga activities (such as the downward dog, warrior, deep breathing and dance), strength training exercises (like planks, lunges, arm and leg lifts and torso twists), aerobics (Hula Hoop, rhythm boxing, basic and advanced step and running) and balance games (soccer heading, ski jumps, tightrope walks and balance bubbles).

According to Sarah West, an exercise specialist at ReQuest Physical Therapy at Gainesville Health and Fitness Center, the Wii Fit offers cardiovascular benefits, which, for the most part, mimic the results of moderate cardio activity.

"It will get your heart rate up, which is the purpose of cardio," she says, "but you have to do quite a few (activities) in a row in order to get the results from it."

West says her favorite is the Hula Hoop because she admits she's not good with the actual hoop, but on the Wii Balance Board, she just has to move her hips in a circular motion to get the character on screen to rotate the hoop.

Ever since the Wii Fit hit the shelves in December 2007, nearly 22 million copies have been sold, according to Nintendo. And users are now turning to Wii Fit Plus, a more rigorous edition released in October, which offers new exercises, balance games and yoga activities.

West says exercise gaming options like the Wii Fit are continuing to flourish because of the results that users, specifically her physical therapy patients, are seeing and feeling.

Xbox recently released "Yourself Fitness," which features six unique fitness environments (such as an island, a meditation garden or a desert) and over 500 unique exercises to choose from (such as Pilates, yoga, cardio and strength training). It also offers customized meal planning and over 4,500 recipes, shopping lists and preparation instructions to simplify healthy eating.

"Other gaming devices are jumping on board, so it makes it much more feasible to use for rehabilitation or just general body conditioning," West says.

The only downfall to the Fit is that it's hard to gauge the number of calories each user burns in a specified time because, according to West, heavier people burn more just by their size and weight compared to those who weigh less, and it also depends on the effort the user puts into the game.

Alison Glover, a mother of two, bought the Wii Fit last August and says she loves the convenience of it.

"With two little kids it's hard to get out to the gym when you're a stay-at-home mom," Glover says. "[It's nice] to be able to work out at home and do some sort of cardio without a cardio machine."

Her kids even get into it, too.

"Hannah Grace loves to run and do the Hula Hoop and she likes to try to do the yoga poses," she says of her 4-year-old. Glover typically uses the game four to five times a week, but admits that family needs sometimes take time away from the virtual personal trainer.

When the user first sets up the game, he or she creates a character, called a Mii, which is a virtual version of the person. The program displays the user's weight and BMI (ratio of height to weight) and categorizes the player as underweight, normal, overweight or obese.

"A lot of people don't know where they stand," West says. "So knowing that right off-hand can be a motivator for their goals."

West says the game also offers a goal-setting device where users can set targets for weight-loss, strength or just time spent exercising per week, for example. And each time a user turns on the machine, it offers fitness tips that range from the amount of sleep he or she is getting to posture and activity level for the day. West says so far they've all been very accurate.

"I like that it's very interactive," says Lauren Schnebly, a University of Florida graduate student pursuing a master's degree in special education. "It actually feels like I have my own personal trainer in my apartment whenever I want."

But, West warns, just because the animated trainer tells you what to do doesn't mean you should neglect proper form. At home, she says, you don't have a professional to ensure you're doing it right.

"You need to be really careful on your form and make sure you aren't doing anything so incorrectly that you might hurt yourself," West says.

"I really like yoga because it helps me work on my balance and flexibility," Schnebly says. "You actually get to see what progress you make over time because they make a graph and show you your progress in balance."

West says exercise specialists at ReQuest typically have their clients use the Wii Fit for 10-15 minutes, mainly for the balance and stabilization exercises. Since most treatment sessions are an hour, the specialists use it in conjunction with other treatment options.

She says she sees improvements in her clients on the game itself. And she notices the most improvement in games like the "Bubble" game, where the character has to travel over a river balancing on a bubble.

"When they first start they would go like 10 feet before it would stop," she says. "Now they're able to completely finish the course."

"You can do it whenever and you can be competitive with it, too," Glover says. "My girlfriends and I all have them and we do different things — not just the Wii Fit — but the Wii in general, like boxing and tennis."

She says she has to laugh when she steps on the balance board and it groans after she's neglected it for a little while.

"It makes comments like, 'Oh, haven't seen you in a while!'" she says. "And if someone else who has a character on it hasn't been on it lately it'll ask 'Hey, have you talked to Hannah Grace lately? Haven't seen her around!'"

Glover says every time you step on the board you have the option of seeing your weight and BMI.

"You can lock it, too, so when your husband gets on it he doesn't see how much you weigh," she says with a laugh.

West says her favorite funny moment is when clients first use the soccer game, a weight-shifting game where users move side-to-side.

Instead of left and right movements, West says some of her clients actually dodge the objects thrown at users for missed kicks — shoes and panda bear heads — by ducking. Since the board only senses side-to-side weight shifts, it cannot detect the downward motion, so clients are essentially doing nothing for their character and wind up getting their Mii whopped in the head.

In addition to balance improvements, the Wii Fit offers cardio training, which for Glover, has helped in other aspects of her life.

"I ran a 5-kilometer race three weeks ago, which I couldn't have done if I hadn't been doing Wii cardio also," she says.

Though she had not heard much about the Wii Fit Plus, Glover said she'd be interested because her body has become accustomed to the levels and exercises of the Wii Fit and some tougher cardio might give her a boost.

According to Nintendo, the Wii Fit Plus offers 15 new balance games and six new strength games, and allows users to select an area for improvement, while suggesting various activities to help.

Some of the challenges it offers are running an obstacle course and traveling on a Segway across a beach.

Have an overweight cat or dog? They can check their weight on the balance board of the Fit Plus, Nintendo says, but it's not likely they'll take up Hula-Hooping.

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