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Wii Fit Review
Can Wii Fit Help Reduce Fat?

Mrs. Pac Man Video Game
State of the art video game
technology in the 1980s.

Videogames have been around a few decades now, but when I was a kid in the 1970s they were expensive, primitive and got pretty boring after a few plays. The height of technology were one dimensional asteroids flying into a triangle ship or a yellow pacman gobbling up dots while avoiding monsters.

Today, things are different. A hit videogame can easily make more money than a blockbuster book or movie. When Halo 3 was released, the first day sales were $170 million. By comparison, the final Harry Potter book took in $166 million and Spider-Man 3 rang up $151 million its opening weekend.

With so much money pouring into the industry, videogames have become increasingly more realistic and interactive. Many offer days or weeks of continuous challenges and gamers can go online to compete against players from around the world. It's challenging, exciting, and potentially creating a huge public health disaster.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health found that as teenagers spend more time in front of their computers or video game systems, they're spending less time participating in physical activities. In 2009 the average 8 to 12 year old child played 13 hours; and teens played 14 hours of video games a week.

As video game play increases, so do the risks of obesity.

In an effort to reverse that trend and help encourage people to exercise more, Nintendo developed the Wii Fit system. It comes with a device called a balance board that tells you exactly how well, or how badly you're doing each of the activities. To see if it succeeds, I decided to see what the experts have found and then test a unit for myself.

Wii Video Game Console As an exercise program, the Wii Fit is mediocre. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) found in every activity they tested that, "performing the actual activity (vs. the virtual one on Wii Fit) has a significantly higher caloric expenditure." None of the activities they tested were, "sufficient enough to maintain or improve cardiorespiratory endurance as defined by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)."

The various Wii Fit modules helped participants burn off 99 to 165 calories over 30 minutes of game play. If you simply walk at a brisk pace outdoors for 30 minutes, you can expect to burn off 200 to 250 calories.

As I explored the system, more problems came up. During the initial setup you create a character (a Mii), your body mass index (BMI) is calculated and your balance is tested. The Wii then adds the numbers together to come up with your Wii "age". Unfortunately it doesn't do a good job explaining the details of BMI and it also doesn't take into account muscle or body fat levels in determining your overall Wii age or fitness level. These are serious shortcomings.

Then there's the problem of not being able to create your own custom programs. If you have a physical problem, injury or handicap, there's no way to input that into the system and devise alternate programs. Wii assumes everyone is completely able bodied and should progress at their pre-determined pace.

There's also a little problem with weight. The Wii balance board is only capable of handling up to 330 pounds, so if you're heavier, you won't be able to participate. Ironically, it's the extremely obese who would probably benefit the most from Wii Fit because it would get them started on something in the privacy of their own homes.

It's disappointing to be sure, but researchers didn't entirely reject the Wii Fit. In fact, one of them, John Porcari, Ph.D. suggested for a better workout, you simply change games. Porcari said, "You're better off doing Wii Sports than Wii Fit. In Wii Sports there's more jumping around, and you're not constrained by having to stand on the balance pad. I just think there's much more freedom of movement and you get a better workout."

Perhaps it's not fair to compare the Wii Fit to traditional exercise, but instead it should be measured against other video games. When that comparison is made, the Wii Fit is definitely a step in the right direction. Instead of sitting in place, virtually immobilized, you have to move with Wii. There are also advantages for anyone with poor equilibrium, because to succeed on many of the Wii activities you've got to develop good balance.

For those of you who are considering the Wii Fit as a tool to drop weight or build muscle, you'll be disappointed. But if you're thinking about it as a healthier alternative to traditional couch potato video game systems, it's definitely a better choice.

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12/13/2009