“Exergaming” (or “exertainment”) is the latest video game craze, which allows you to play sports “virtually” using interactive computer technology. It sounds invigorating, but is it real exercise?
You can box, bowl, play tennis, shoot hoops, snowboard, hula-hoop, do yoga, even walk a tightrope, all from the comfort of your living room.
Several companies make them, but the most popular is Nintendo Wii. Using a hand-held controller with digital motion sensors, you simulate the movements needed to perform the activity, as an onscreen character depicts your movement in real time. The Wii Fit program includes a pressure-sensitive balance board that you work out on.
Swing hard, but not too hard
Wii and similar virtual sports video games promote physical activity—at least more so than traditional video games and other sedentary pastimes.
In a Mayo Clinic study, both children and adults playing Wii boxing burned more calories than when they rested, watched television, or played regular video games. Children burned 190 more calories an hour, on average, compared to resting; adults burned an extra 150 calories.
But people playing Wii rarely achieve the same intensity level or burn as many calories as during the actual sports—even if they’re coached to use more than minimal effort. For example, researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that only Wii boxing was intense enough to maintain or improve endurance in players, compared to Wii tennis, golf, bowling, and baseball.
Other studies question whether any of these video games can be considered even “moderate-intensity” exercise. To get the most from a virtual workout you have to mimic the actual body movements of the sport as closely as possible and make a conscious effort to move your whole body—something that may be hard to do in a confined indoor setting. And some games are not too demanding to begin with.
On the other hand, there are reports of people playing Wii so hard that they actually injure themselves. As with real sports that involve repetitive movements, you can overdo it with virtual games.
You can get tendinitis of the elbow or shoulder (“wii-itis”) or sprain an ankle or knee. You should take breaks when playing them, as you would in real sports.
Step up to the plate
Exergaming is not a substitute for regular exercise. But it’s better than doing nothing, and it can be an enjoyable way for sedentary people to ease into activity. You may, as you build skill and confidence, want someday to take the sport on the road, so to speak. Or, if you’re already active, you may want to take your favorite outdoor sport inside on a rainy day.
Virtual sports games may also be good for people who have physical limitations due to a sports injury, a stroke, or other illness (such as Parkinson’s disease); some physical therapists use them in their practices.
It’s not a cheap pursuit, though: a complete set-up (console and game programs) can run several hundred dollars. And if you’re not tech-savvy, you might need some help setting up the system.