How Video Games Keep You Fit

A game-by-game look at the history and evolution of systems that make us sweat.
How Video Games Keep You Fit

Of all the seminal moments in video-game history, the biggest may have come on May 1, 2012. That’s when the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition — the group that has been making kids do sit-ups and shuttle runs since the days of Eisenhower — formally recognized the importance of active video games in getting kids burning calories. The numbers back them up. A recent study published by the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity showed that so-called exergames helped a majority of obese children improve aerobic fitness and body mass index with just 60 minutes of active gaming a day.

Sue Masemer, the manager of the LiveWell Fitness Center at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, appreciates the importance of active gaming for kids and adults alike. Her team of exercise physiologists, physical therapists and wellness coaches has been using them for years. “We need to get people engaged first to really get them motivated and sustain changes,” says Masemer of her decision to incorporate video games into her program. “If you’re doing something you can’t stand, that’s very de-motivating. Besides, your heart doesn’t care whether you’re biking or doing Wii Fit.”

It took quite the journey to get to this point. So let’s take a trip down a sweaty memory lane to see how the trend in fitness video games developed:

Atari Joyboard (1982) — Considered the granddaddy of exercise gaming, and like most granddaddys, it's slow, clunky and drools when it takes naps. The basic concept is really not too far removed from the Wii Fit balance board. But then again, the basic concept of "Pong" is really not all that far removed from "Wii Tennis."

Nintendo Power Pad (1988) — Nintendo's first foray into fitness gaming, The Power Pad was also known as the Family Trainer and the Family Fun Fitness. The pad had 12 sensors that, when stepped on, activated appropriate in-game responses. Sound familiar?

Power Glove (1989) — Purportedly captured a range of motion but really only captured the ire of kids of everywhere because it didn't really work. Using the glove for a boxing game was supposed to help you work up a sweat by forcing you to throw fists ala "Wii Boxing." Unfortunately, the only things getting knocked to the ground were televisions.

Dance Dance Revolution (1998) — This franchise is virtually synonymous with exercise gaming. Christie Brinkley, supermodel and ultimate Uptown Girl, says, "I started playing it with my daughter and before I knew it three hours had passed." Therein lies the benefit of DDR and all successful exercise games. You are burning calories but you don't necessarily know it. Try doing that with "Grand Theft Auto."

Yourself! Fitness (2004) — Offered all of the benefits of a personal trainer without the awkwardness of having them flirt with you inappropriately by the Nautilus machines--basically an interactive workout video. Your virtual trainer, named Maya, could be tougher than day-old pita bread. If you stuck to it though, the program actually worked with its yoga, Pilates and strength-training modes. The only real problem is that it wasn't any fun--a very meat and potatoes "exergaming" experience.

Bodypad (2005) — This Playstation 2 peripheral looked more like something out of a sci-fi movie than a real-life device. To use it, you strapped a plethora of sensors to your body that let you actually act out stances and maneuvers while playing fighting games. It got good reviews but faded into obscurity, perhaps because only Chuck Norris can contort his body to coordinate the martial arts maneuvers found in games such as "Mortal Kombat."

Wii Sports (2006) — Sure, "Wii Sports" isn't supposed to be a fitness game, but anyone who has spent a few rounds sparring with friends in "Wii Boxing" or "Wii Tennis" knows that you can work up a mighty sweat with it. The key to unlocking the health increasing potential of "Wii Sports" is to play standing up and opt for full motions instead of quick wrist flicks. In short, get into it!

Wii Fit (2008) — Features a state-of-the-art balance board that tracks BMI and weight, and a slew of fitness games that have you simulate skiing, hula hooping and even walking on a tightrope. The game even gives you your own virtual trainer for the yoga and strength-training portions. Ashley Borden, trainer for celebrities such as Christina Aguilera and Lauren Graham, says, "You get such detailed audio and visual feedback from the virtual trainer. The smartest and safest thing about the program is that it doesn't let you progress too far in advance until you've mastered the moves at each level. As a trainer, I appreciate that." She may not appreciate that when "Wii Fit" steals her job by replacing the need for personal trainers in a year or two.

Wii Fit Plus (2009) — Wii Fit Plus took exergaming to the next level with 15 new balance and aerobics games, three new strength-training games and three new yoga activities (Spine Extension and Grounded V, anyone?). Even better, it incorporated a calorie counter and the ability to create a custom routine based on your own goals and abilities. That effort didn’t go unnoticed. Not only did Wii Fit Plus sell 2.16 million copies in its first month, but it also earned an endorsement from the American Heart Association.

PlayStation Move (2010) — Not to be outdone, PlayStation got in on the action with Move. With the PlayStation Eye camera (basically, a glorified webcam) and a handheld wand (using Bluetooth 2.0), your run-of-the-mill PS3 was transformed into a motion-sensing game controller platform. And that iconic orb on the wand did more than glow in cool, funky colors with the help of LEDs. It was also highly accurate and responsive, leaving Wii in the dust and winning Popular Science’s “most immersive game controller” award.

Kinect (2010) — What, you thought Bill Gates was going to sit idly by while his competition took over the category? Made for Xbox 360, Kinect’s marketing slogan, “You are the controller,” pretty much says it all. Its motion-sensing technology got rid of the controller altogether, replacing it with an infrared camera and projector that tracked the movements of objects in three dimensions. People must have loved flopping around their living rooms playing Rally Ball and River Rush, because Kinect became the Guinness World Record holder for fastest-selling consumer electronics device. (Eight-million copies in the first 60 days.)

Just Dance 3 (2011) — You knew this video game was the Christmas gift of the season when President Obama was spied buying a copy for Sasha and Malia at a Virginia Best Buy. And the First Kids weren’t the only ones who danced along to artists old (Earth, Wind & Fire, Queen, The Sugarhill Gang) and new (Beyoncé, Katy Perry, LMFAO). Just Dance 3 beat out Dance Dance Revolution II and four other titles to be voted the Best Exergame of 2011, nabbing 39.5 percent of the public vote.

Nike+ Kinect Training (2012) — The folks at Nike promise that their collaboration with Microsoft, Nike+ Kinect Training (slated for release this holiday season), will “blur the line between a personal-training session and a game.” We tend to believe them, because it will feature (virtual) trainers that assess your athleticism and strength, identify where you need to improve and create a personalized workout plan. And the “game” evolves as you get fitter, reassessing your progress every four weeks. (A companion Windows Phone app reminds you of training sessions and shares updates with friends.) Given the sticker price of $60, your personal trainer may be spending a lot of time alone this Christmas.

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