Wii Workout: Shaping Up From the Couch

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Nintendo is at it again. This spring, gamers will no longer be limited to just standing and playing video games at the same time. Now, with the company's newest game Wii Fit, players can work out as well.

Wii Fit, which hits American store shelves May 19, is a combination workout video and electronic exercise log that charts players' progress on a series of exercises, as well as weight and body mass index (BMI); think Brain Age for your body.

Like the "Wiimote" wand before it, Wii Fit also has its own special piece of hardware: the white Wii balance board, which looks like an extra-wide bathroom scale. Players get weighed and perform most exercises on the board, which allows the game to determine the player's center of gravity, reps and speed during workouts.

Like most Wii games, Wii Fit begins by prompting players to create a "Mii" and input basic information; Wii Fit requests height and birth date. Then, players are put through a quick balance test to determine their "Wii Fit Age." The balance test measures how quickly players can shift their weight to a certain level measured on the screen on the balance board.

According to the test, my BMI and weight were right on target, but my balance indicated that I had the fitness level of someone 20 years older.

After a player's Wii Fit age is determined, he or she gets a stamp, much like Brain Age, and then moves on to a variety of exercises divided into four categories: strength training, aerobics, yoga and balance games. The game also allows players to set goals and keep track of their total daily minutes working out. Any workout time away from the Wii — at the gym, for example — can be recorded on Wii Fit.

The game is the brainchild of famed game developer Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the characters Mario and Donkey Kong. Miyamoto, who is in his mid-50s, developed the game after giving up smoking and starting to exercise, according to spokesman Eric Walter.

The balance board concept was born out of sumo wrestling.

"Sumo wrestlers are so heavy that they can't weigh on a regular scale," Walter said. Instead, they have to perfectly balance between two scales so that their weight is measured accurately.

According to Nintendo, the game is already a hit in Japan; since its release in December 2007, it has sold 1.5 million copies. The country has also seen an uptick in Wii sales since the game's release.

But despite the game's popularity overseas, exercise experts debate what kind of impact the Wii Fit will have on bona fide couch potatoes.

Cedric Bryant, the chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise, says he's in favor of anything that gets people moving — even if it comes in the form of a video game.

"Some exercise is better than none," Bryant said. "I think one of the challenges that we face is we haven't done a particularly good job in engaging people to get up and move. ... Most people understand it's important, but often say they don't have time to do it. ... We haven't been able to give them the right hook to engage them to get up and stay up, and this might do it for some people."

One of those ways, Bryant said, is evident in another video game, Dance Dance Revolution. The game, which swept arcades and, later, homes across the nation, also launched tales of overweight children and teenagers who danced the pounds away.

"It can become a family affair. There is that fun competitive aspect to it," Bryant said. "It does just give us another option. I think for some kids it could be their primary option. I like the idea for giving people a menu of choices. ... The big mantra for folks should be learn how to move more."

Dr. Goutham Rao, clinical director of the Weight Management and Wellness Center at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, agrees with that mantra, but says that games like Wii Fit encourage people to compartmentalize working out, instead of incorporating it naturally in their day.

"One of my bigger concerns is that it teaches that physical activity is not a part of your everyday routine," Rao said. "I can't see children sustaining this for very long. At best it will be a novelty for a few hours or a few days, even."

The Wii Fit also might not offer as much social interaction that both children and adults crave during fitness activities, according to Rao.

"There's a whole bunch of other things people get by going to gym — a greater variety of exercise. There's a social aspect. It's all going to be missing here," he said.

The Wii Fit will go the way of the dusty exercise equipment that no one uses, Rao predicts.

"We'll see Wii Fits on sale on Craigslist by the summer," he said.

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