Exercise, Lose Weight With 'Exergaming'

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

New 'active' video games combine body movement with gaming skill

By Star Lawrence
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

As the beeps and whistles emanate from the family room, are you afraid Junior is going to develop thumbs the size of bananas and a belly to match?

According to Judith Sherman-Wolin, exercise specialist with the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition and author of Smart Women Do Dumbbells, dietary guidelines may come and go, but the one constant is exercise. Over half of Americans don't get enough (now pegged at 30 minutes to an hour a day), and a quarter of us are total taters.

But -- get this -- what if playing video games did provide some exercise? Some do! It's a new trend called "exergaming" or "exertainment."

The jam-packed hit of this year's Consumer Electronics Show was a "Cardio PlayZone," featuring some of the new workout and movement video contraptions.

Dance Dance Revolution

DDR, as its many aficionados hiply call it, runs on the Xbox platform. This started out as an arcade game, played on a floor display sort of like an amped-up Twister. The system is loaded with catchy tunes and can be calibrated to different levels of intensity as the players dance to the pattern, either individually or competitively. When the manufacturer, Konami of Japan, migrated it to PlayStation in April of 1999, 3 million copies flew off the shelves.

"I am familiar with DDR," Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, tells WebMD. "My four boys play it. It can be strenuous and can really get your heart rate up. It has different levels of intensity." (Reportedly, there is even a module for the Lawrence Welk -- make that Rod Stewart -- set.)

Nicktoons Movin'

Sherman-Wolin once was asked to do an energy expenditure study on Nicktoons Movin', a game played on the PlayStation2 Eyetoy platform. "I tried it," she says. "It was fun."

Atop the TV is a motion-sensitive Eyetoy USB camera that allows the players to sort of "jump inside" the game.

The games and characters are based on Nickelodeon characters and "hosted" by SpongeBob SquarePants. Up to eight players wildly move their arms to fix Cosmo and Wanda's fishbowl, go for a drive with Mrs. Puff, help Timmy smash robots, go bowling with SpongeBob, and other cartoonishly entrancing activities.

Did smashing virtual robots really up the heart rate? Sherman-Wolin says yes. Fifteen percent of kids aged 6 to 19 are overweight, she notes. If sitting still and watching TV consumed 16 calories an hour for the average 55-pound 8-year-old and standing only expended 20 calories, sweating with the Spongester burned 50 calories.

"I liken it to Ping Pong," she says. "You are sort of standing there and sort of moving at the same time."

Golf Launchpad

In this one, back off, kiddies, you use your own golf clubs to play 800 of the most challenging golf courses in the world. The USB game controller package runs on PC and Mac platforms and is coming to PlayStation. Tiger Woods gaming software is included, and it can also be used with Microsoft's Links.

"Is playing virtual golf real exercise?"

You play on a mat filled with sensors and hit a real (tethered) golf ball with your own clubs.

The company which produces it, Electric-Spin Corporation, is located in Canada, and thus far the product is available in the United States only online or at Edwin Watts golf shops, although it is expected to go wider shortly.

After you purchase the product, you can use the serial number to download special analysis software that scopes out your swing.

Is playing virtual golf real exercise? "I have been a golf pro for 20 years," sales manager Shawn Clement tells WebMD, "and I can tell you that if you hit a golf ball for an hour, it's a tremendous workout." Walloping the ball uses 200 muscles, he notes. And if you unplug and walk the course and carry the clubs, it's as good exercise as cycling.


"My whole body strained to keep a Gran Turismo 3 race car on the road. If I had this in the gym, I would play it every day," claims one user of Kilowatt, a whole-body gaming system from Powergrid Fitness in Laurel, Md.

Kilowatt is a hefty $800 machine with a four-foot joystick (they call it a steering stalk). It runs ordinary video games but really makes you apply body English. According to a white paper a sports medicine physician prepared for the company, the stalk is adjustable to different levels of resistance (intensity).

The basic benefit (besides fun) is isometric exercise -- the flexing of muscles without joint movement, meaning it's low impact.

According to Bryant, anytime you turn yourself into the joystick, you are getting exercise. When one set of muscles fatigue in fast, competitive play, the body will automatically seek other positions to work other groups to avoid losing the game, so a range of muscles is flexed.

In one study, heart rate went from 77 at rest to 123 on the Kilowatt (in fit, college-aged males). Regular, thumbs-intensive video gaming bumped heart rate only two points.

Again, according to the company-sponsored white paper, if a 170-pound male played video games using the Kilowatt for 40 minutes a day for five days a week, this would result in an expenditure of 680 calories. Played once a day for a week, this would burn off more than a pound of fat.

Would the average person keep it up? Well, many average people do keep up playing video games every day. This is just a harder (more beneficial) way to do it.

Last Word

Despite his sons' propensity for video dancing, ACE's Bryant says he does not allow video games during the week. "We use them as a bit of a carrot," he says, "for academic as well as activity reasons. Kids tend to be creative and want to move and be active."

He suggests parents not just throw one of these more active games at kids and think their exercise needs are fulfilled. "You can use it to get kids to do other exercises," he says. "Many kids are competitive. If they want to get to the next level on one of these, suggest more strength or stamina training such as jumping, running, and hopping."

Running and playing? Like we parents used to do as kids? "I think parents need to teach kids what it's like to run around outside," he says. "Play Capture the Flag. It's back to the future."

If you do that, maybe Junior will move over and let you take the stalk.

Published Jan. 18, 2005

SOURCES: Judith Sherman-Wolin, exercise specialist, UCLA Center for Human Nutrition; author, Smart Women Do Dumbbells. Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist, American Council on Exercise. Shawn Clement, sales manager, Electric-Spin Corp., Woodbridge, Ontario.

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