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President’s Council on Fitness backs Wii, Kinect and other video games

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We called it “the devil’s machine” in my house, and the Faustian bargain we struck over that first Nintendo 64 would have impressed Lucifer himself. We bought it for my son when he was perhaps 7; it provided countless hours of contentment for him and an equal measure of downtime for Mom and Dad.

But — stop me if you’ve heard this a million times — if we didn’t intervene, he could sit in front of it forever, transfixed by the flashing lights and the endless challenge of achieving higher scores.

Later, that old Nintendo gave way to a series of ever more sophisticated consoles and a cornucopia of video and computer games. I remember my son turning to us with a grin during one of our lesser nags about gaming time and asking sarcastically, “What is this ‘outdoors’ you speak of?”

So I couldn’t ignore the irony in the April 30 announcement that the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition had decided to team up with the Entertainment Software Association to demonstrate “how to use video games to promote physical activity.”

Times, as they say, do change.

You probably remember the President’s Council as a periodic fixture of gym class. The government agency, started during the Eisenhower Administration, sponsored those sit-up, push-up and pull-up tests that could earn you a certificate of some kind. (I can’t actually remember taking the test, however. Maybe my teachers decided I was hopeless.)

The organization is still doing the youth fitness test, Executive Director Shellie Pfohl told me. But this is 2012 and kids are spending 71 / 2 hours a day in front of computer, television and video game screens, she said. “We need to meet kids, especially, where they are,” she said. “We want to turn that passive screen time into active screen time.”

“If we can connect movement with entertainment, and hopefully add some education in there on top of it, it’s a wonderful way to meet kids where they are, to speak their language.”

Of course, the council’s partner in this marriage has been doing that for years. There are so many active video games on the market now that the term “exergaming” entered the lexicon a few years ago. Today, you can find Wii bowling in assisted-living facilities and Dance Dance Revolution in West Virginia schools. The American Heart Association has already teamed with Nintendo. The managed-care giant UnitedHealth Group announced last week that it believes “the intersection of health and video gaming holds enormous potential benefit for individuals, families and the entire health care system.”

So perhaps it was inevitable that the venerable government organization and the trade group that has its hands on the controls of today’s youth entertainment would get together. Under the plan, kids can earn their Presidential Active Lifestyle Award (PALA+) certificate by using active games to help them get 60 minutes of exercise, five days a week for six weeks. Adults must move for 30 minutes a day. There is also a nutrition component to the challenge (hence the “plus” in PALA+).

Companies such as Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony and EA Sports agreed to include software in the games that will allow users to monitor their progress toward activity and nutrition goals. There also is an online tool that will let schools and communities compete with one another.

Interestingly, research on the benefits of exergaming is somewhat mixed. Numerous studies show that exergames are certainly better than the sedentary versions of my son’s childhood. But some active games provide only light to moderately intense exercise, while others offer a more vigorous workout.

Some experts also wonder whether encouraging exergaming sends kids a message that it’s okay not to go outside and run around in the fresh air.

“The novelty factor can be a good motivator for individuals to participate in exergames,” Carol Torgan, a Bethesda physiologist and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, told me in an e-mail. “Some people find the games to be more enjoyable than activities like walking on a treadmill. However, the novelty can wear off. . . . The research just highlights what we already know — that people will participate in activities that they find to be enjoyable and that are easily accessible.”

Bottom line: Some video games provide an excellent workout. Others provide some exercise, certainly more than sitting on a couch with a game controller in your hand. For a kid living in an unsafe neighborhood, a senior with limited mobility and lots of other folks who simply can’t find a way to begin an exercise program, exergaming can be part, perhaps a critical part, of adopting a healthier lifestyle.

My son, now in college, still plays video games all the time. But by the time he was an adolescent, he was also running, playing touch football with his friends, shooting baskets and riding his bike. Call me old school, but I’m fine with that, too.

These seven video games are part of the PALA+ Challenge:

• Dance Dance Revolution (Konami)

• Just Dance 3 (Ubisoft)

• Kinect Sports: Season 2 (Microsoft)

• MLB 12: The Show (Sony)

• Nickelodeon Dance (Take-Two Interactive)

• Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 (EA Sports)

• Wii Fit Plus (Nintendo)

Update

When I last checked on Frank Fumich, the 44-year-old Arlington native and Spartan Death Race survivor was completing the Virginia Triple Iron Triathlon in 48:03, good for sixth place. (That’s 48 hours and three minutes, for three consecutive Ironman triathlons.)

Never one to rest on his laurels (see his list of endurance exploits in that previous column), Fumich trekked to the North Pole in April with two friends and a guide. The six-day, 70-mile trek was self-supported; each man pulled a sled packed with more than 100 pounds of gear. Fumich completed the trip two months after back surgery, despite a doctor’s orders not to pull any heavy loads.

It was 25 degrees below zero at the top of the world, Fumich reports, but the group had nearly 24 hours of light each day. Fumich raised about $1,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. Check out a video on the expedition.

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