Fitness: Coming to a Video Game Near You

For a country facing an obesity epidemic, filling high school phys ed classes with video games may not sound like a great idea. But at Brandywine High School in Wilmington, Del., that's exactly what they're doing.

Games like "Dance Dance Revolution," where players dance their way to high scores, and devices like GameBike -- which puts players on a stationary bicycle that allows them to control a virtual rider by pedaling -- are getting kids and even some adults excited about physical fitness.

Using the already wide popularity of video game consoles like Playstation, Xbox and GameCube, and the increasing commonness of home computers in American households, some game and hardware developers are beginning to stress the "active' in 'interactive entertainment."

'They Want To Do This'

"My philosophy is: what can I find out there, on the market, that's going to get the students up off the couch and up off the gym floor?" said Brandywine physical education instructor Sandy Kupchick. "I'm trying to find anything I can to get them to participate."

Kupchick, who's been teaching physical education for more than 20 years, says she offers students a choice between playing more traditional team sports like basketball or baseball, or using what they call the "fitness room" where students use a video game console to play games that get their blood pumping.

"When I tell them we're going to the fitness room, they run," she said. "They're making my life easier because they're enjoying themselves and I don't have to harp on them -- 'let's get dressed, let's participate' -- because they want to do this."

She says she's even seen some significant role reversals as a result of using technology to teach phys ed.

"A lot of the non-stereotypical-jock-type students -- or non-athletic students -- are far superior in it than the athletes," she said. "So it's great because now they are shining in a gym program where they normally would not even want to dress."

Kupchick says the program has been so successful that many students purchase home versions of the games and devices to use on their own time.

'I Think I'm Skinny Now'

A few hundred miles south of Brandywine High School, in Charleston, N.C., 20-year-old Matt Keene is living proof that the right video game can lead to a healthier and happier lifestyle.

In 2003, Keene -- who weighed around 350 pounds -- decided he wanted to do something about his weight. But he didn't know what.

"I had tried diets and exercise but I was really just too lethargic and apathetic toward it," said Keene. "It was easier to just eat more."

It was then that a friend introduced him to "Dance Dance Revolution," known to its fans as DDR.

DDR, made by Konami, has been around since the late 1990s. The game challenges players to mimic the moves of a virtual dancer on screen by moving their feet on a dance pad that acts like a video game controller.

"We went [to the arcade] and just as a goof I tried it and it was a lot of fun," he said. "I started noticing that I was sweating. I was like, 'Hey, this is kind of like a workout!' "

Keene continued to make regular trips to the arcade and purchased a home version of the game. He worked DDR into a regular diet and exercise regimen and stuck to it.

"I kept my eating under 1,500 calories a day," Keene recalled. "I didn't have a scale or anything -- I just started noticing that my clothes were bigger and didn't fit right."

After sticking with his self-fashioned fitness program for just eight months, Keene says he could almost see the pounds melt away.

"In August of 2003 I finally said, 'I think I'm skinny now,'" he gleefully remembered.

Even after he lost almost 80 pounds, Keene says some people still have trouble believing that he accomplished it with a video game.

"A cop pulled me over, and I don't have a new license -- I still have the 'bigger' picture," Keene said. "He asked me how I [lost the weight] and I said video games. He said 'Don't be a smartass.' "

As impressed as the officer was, Keene says he still got a ticket.

Changing Perceptions

Industry experts say that video games offer users a unique opportunity to participate that makes offering fitness-based games a natural fit.

"I really think that the advantage that the video game console has in presenting this is its interactivity," said Rob Smith, editor in chief of Official Xbox Magazine. "It speaks more to [game consoles] being in the home and using what it can do as an interactive sort of vessel."

Smith believes that as gaming consoles are becoming more and more common and capable of delivering more varied forms of interactive entertainment, the public's perception of what a video game can be is changing too.

"As soon as the concept of the entertainment box in the living room isn't just a VCR or a DVR or whatever, but has a bunch of different applications," he said, "we'll see a vast range of products presenting themselves in the living room, and sort of taking advantage of the interaction that you get from a video game console that you don't get by watching videos or DVDs."

A Healthy Future

After watching how her students have enthusiastically taken to cardiovascular workouts using video games, Kupchick needs no convincing, but admits some of her colleagues may have reservations about using video games in phys ed.

"You have some teachers who are just old-fashioned teachers, where it's team sports and that's it," she said. "Within our own district there's another high school that doesn't want anything to do with it. Some of us want to look outside of the box, and some of us want to stay inside the box."

Whether the future of fitness is filled with interactive entertainment or not is anyone's guess, but Kupchick says as long as people are moving, it doesn't matter what they're doing.

"Activity is what you make of it," she said. "We hope that in the long run they turn around and start enjoying it and we get them looking into some kind of activity for their lifetime and that we can keep them healthy."