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Exergames, like 'Wii Sports,' useful but less effective than real thing

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Posted: Monday, February 11, 2013 9:22 am

After 65 years away from the lanes, Dorothy Thompson has found a way to get back into bowling.

The 99-year-old, who lives at Omaha's Lakeside Village retirement community, is a Wii bowler.

In three years of virtual gaming, she has picked up a pair of 7-10 splits and bowled one near-perfect game, except for one spare. Her 200-plus average is the best in Tanya Lager's Wii Workout class, and it's 30 pins better than Thompson's average as a 35-year-old real-life bowler.

"I had never played a video game before," Thompson said. "It's just so natural, and it's like regular bowling."

Thompson is a prime example of the growing variety of people who play exercise games on consoles such as Nintendo Wii, XBox Kinect and Playstation Move -- dubbed exergames -- as a substitute for traditional methods of fitness.

"It's a fun and entertaining way to exercise," Lager said. "This is a good alternative for the person who doesn't like to do traditional exercise."

The idea of playing games as a workout has adults and children buzzing, but researchers say they're less effective than most people think.

Kris Berg, who directs the clinical exercise physiology lab at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said most fitness games offer only low levels of activity.

"It's equivalent to brisk walking," Berg said. "It's not real strenuous."

Fast-paced walking burns 350 calories per hour on average. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says adults need 150 minutes of activity equivalent to that per week to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

If you're using exergames to get your weekly fix, it'll take two and a half hours riding a raft in "Kinect Adventures," dancing to 43 songs in "Dance Dance Revolution" or hopping around your living room for a Wimbledon-length tennis match in "Wii Sports."

And no, menu time doesn't count, nor does sitting and flicking your wrist with the game controls.

The best exergame workouts are the ones that get you off the couch, constantly moving. The faster the pace, the more calories you burn.

Barbara Chamberlin, a professor at New Mexico State University who studies exergames, said the games have been around for decades but have exploded because of the simplicity of the Wii.

The simple controller and motion-based play style made it accessible to a wide range of people. People could master the controller in a short time, as most games require very little button-pushing.

"I think it started out with kids playing it and adults watching and saying, 'I could do that. That looks like fun,'" Chamberlin said in an interview.

Chamberlin's website, Exergames Unlocked, provides ratings for games, categorizing them as "calorie burner," "skip this" or "staff picks." She also offers age recommendations. The "Just Dance" series by Ubisoft, playable on Wii and XBox Kinect, is one of the site's most recommended games, for example, earning "calorie burner" and "teen/adult favorite" distinctions.

"They're fun, they're well designed," Chamberlin said. "You can have one person holding the controller and 100 people behind them dancing, and everyone is having fun."

Lager, of Lakeside Village, said the seniors in her program follow a similar model when they play "Wii Fit." One person will stand on the balance board and lead, while the rest of the crowd mimics the movement.

Her group prefers the lower-intensity games like tennis and bowling to the "Wii Fit," which features a series of exercises for yoga and strength training.

Although the less-strenuous games burn fewer calories and don't give you as many cardio benefits, they can be helpful in easing arthritis pain and improving balance.

Chamberlin said flexibility and adaptability make exergames a viable fitness option. People across a wide range of age groups have the option to discover what works for them.

"I don't think that there's any exergame solution that's a one-game-fits-all approach," Chamberlin said. "The best exergame is the one that works best for you."

But if you're physically able, said Berg, nothing is better than old-fashioned exercise. Virtual tennis shouldn't replace live tennis, he said.

"Energy expenditure and oxygen intake are better than nothing, but certainly not better than tennis or something else," Berg said. "Kids need to do the whole body activities. They need to be out playing hopscotch and playing tag and on monkey bars. You need to use the large muscles."

In fact, one of the biggest concerns with exergames is that instead of acting as a gateway to a more healthy, active, outdoor lifestyle, they drive people indoors to their video game consoles.

A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics tested children who were given active video games and children who were given inactive video games. The study found that kids with the active games weren't any more active than kids with inactive games.

Buying the games isn't enough. You have to know how to use them and force yourself to break a sweat, which now has a bad reputation, Berg said. If people know they might sweat, they don't choose the most effective exercise methods.

"Just the term workout -- it's almost too bad that people think it has to be work," Berg said. "It should be more like move your body, have fun. It should be something that takes your mind off what you're doing and disassociate yourself from the problems of life."

That's exactly what the Omaha YMCA is hoping will happen with its new exercise equipment.

One year ago, the YMCA began installing $6,000 bikes featuring a program that simulates riding in a variety of locations, like the Swiss Alps, with use of TVs and built-in inclines.

"Adults actually love the equipment just as much as the kids," said Lance Cohn, executive vice president of operations. "It's just a way to keep your mind engaged into something aside from just the workout."

People liked the machines so much that Cohn now orders all of the YMCA's new cardio equipment with that feature installed.

In September 2010, the Fremont YMCA -- the second largest in the nation -- opened The Underground, an exergame center aimed at youths. It has light-sensor games and console games along with other active-engagement games. The sensor-based games have light-up sensors on the wall or on the floor that players must react to and touch.

Omaha's Cohn hopes to continue finding new ways to blend fun and fitness.

"For us, it's kind of a new age as far as where the industry and the market is headed," Cohn said.

Chamberlin thinks the future of exergames already is evident.

There are a growing number of variations of the sensor-based games, she said, and these games, in addition to console sensors like the Xbox Kinect, will continue to grow in popularity, Chamberlin said.

"Our views of games are evolving," Chamberlin said. "Thanks to things like smartphones and mobile devices, a lot of us are gamers who didn't used to be."

But, she said, there still will never be a miracle method to make them no-fail fat-burners.

"Try a bunch of different things," Chamberlin said. "Give yourself enough space to realize there's no perfect solution."

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