Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can Video Games Improve Your Health? The Answer Will Shock You

Mention the words "video game" and you're more likely to think of a couch potato than a gym rat. But thanks to a new breed of gaming console, now you can play for hours—well, maybe minutes to start—and get fit, too.

When I first heard about the Nintendo Wii ($249,, a revolutionary gaming system that uses motion-sensitive remote controllers instead of joysticks, I knew I had to have one. Convincing my wife was another matter. I've had just about every system over the years, but after the initial honeymoon period of constant use, they just collected dust until I sold them online. So she was understandably reluctant to welcome another one into the house.

I pitched the purchase as a fitness tool—something to kickstart an exercise regimen to complement my Weight Watchers Online subscription. I even told her about a recent study carried out by Liverpool John Moores University in England that showed how Wii players' players' ages 13-15burned significantly more calories compared to playing sedentary games. The activity didn’t rank the same as exercise, but perhaps future studies in adults will prove to be more promising Regardless, increasing my energy expenditure and (in theory, anyway)playing for around 12 hours a week could mean a significant weight loss over the course of a year. In the end, it was an easy sell.

As if to encourage you to seek out its fitness benefits from the start, the Wii comes with a sports game that features challenges in baseball, bowling, boxing, golf and tennis. You can play against the computer or, if you're feeling sociable, another person (as long as you have two remote controls). You can even take a daily fitness test where the console randomly selects three of the games and assigns you a "fitness age" based on your performance, with 20 years being the optimum result. I have to admit that the idea of being 20 again—even for just a day—was extremely appealing. However, on my first attempt, I was mortified to be given a Wii fitness age of 58, more than two decades older than my real age.

Five days a week for the first two months, I would play for about 45 minutes, mixing in full games, training games and a fitness-age challenge. At the end of each session, I was sweating, my heart was pumping and I practically had to ice my arms down like a pitcher to stop them from aching. My Wii fitness age slowly dropped until the console thought I was ten years younger than my actual age, even if I didn't feel it at that point. After just a couple of months of following the Plan and using only the Wii for exercise, I was surprised to see how much weight I lost.

But I'm a big guy with a lot of weight to lose. Would regular people—folks who, unlike me, wouldn't be scared to walk into a gym or play a pick-up basketball game—also get a good workout playing a sports video game? The only way to know was to hold a Wii-lympics at the office. Clearly, there was interest; dozens showed up for the event. Who wouldn't want to take on a work colleague in the boxing ring, after all? We spent hours duking it out in front of a widescreen TV in the conference room.

Beyond the fun and games, our unscientific trial showed that players had increases in heart rate(the study didn’t discuss heart rate, just calories burned)—after just three rounds of virtual boxing, some Weight Watchers employees saw their heart rate soar to 150 beats per minute. For someone in their 30's, getting your heart rate that high is a genuine cardiovascular workout. Of course, three 3 minute-rounds is hardly enough time to call it a full workout, but you get the picture.

The bottom line? These types of interactive video games burn more calories than others, and although they don’t rank the same as exercise, it’s a starting point. And armed with that information, you just might be able to convince yourself (or your wife, or your roommate) that investing in such games just might help motivate you to lose weight and get fit. Who knows? It could be a fun, interactive stepping stone to a more sustained workout regimen.

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