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Exercise That's All Fun and Games

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Tom Klimchak says he has been overweight for most of his life -- but figures he might slim down this year with a little help from Nintendo.

The latest Nintendo game system, the Wii, has gotten a lot of publicity for its innovative use of game controllers. Instead of sitting on a couch and mashing away at buttons, Wii players move their arms and wrists as if they were actually, say, swinging tennis rackets.

Play the boxing game that comes with the system for a few minutes, and you can feel your heart rate climbing. Play a little longer, and you might even break into a sweat.

Some owners of the console, like Klimchak, are taking this a step further and turning the Wii into their workout partner. Every morning before work, Klimchak fires up the Wii and punches and swings at the television for about 30 minutes. To increase the effort he expends on the games, he straps on wrist weights.

So far, it seems to be working. "I feel better and my arms are tighter," he said. Since beginning his regimen as a New Year's resolution, he has lost about 16 pounds, though he also credits changes in his diet. Klimchak, who started at 269 pounds, never owned a Nintendo before and picked up the Wii mainly in hope of getting some exercise.

Nintendo says it didn't really see this coming. Sure, it was hoping the system would appeal to baby boomers who might see it as a way to help stay physically and mentally alert, but this is a little different, said Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing.

"We saw it as a form of entertainment," she said. "We did not see it as a form of exercise."

Video games usually get knocked for their part in turning us into a nation of couch potatoes. But maybe there's a slight change afoot here. About a month ago, I met Nintendo fan Seth Dubois while researching an unrelated story. Dubois's girlfriend had given him a Wii for Christmas, and he quickly discovered the workout value. "I'm overweight," he told me. "So I try to play everyday."

Mickey DeLorenzo, a Nintendo fan in Philadelphia, turned his passion for the console into an experiment: For six weeks, he played the Wii's sports games every day but made no other alteration to his diet or exercise habits.

He lost nine pounds, down from 181.

At his personal Nintendo fan site, Wiinintendo.net, DeLorenzo posted graphs and funny video clips documenting his experiment. In one, he runs through the streets of Philadelphia with his Wii controllers in hand and jumps up and down on the top steps to the city's art museum as the "Rocky" theme plays. In another, he and a friend box, bowl, play tennis and swing the baseball bat in front of a TV.

He's even partnered with Traineo.com, a Web site that helps people track their weight-loss and fitness goals, to create the Wii Workout, which debuted on the site last week.

A scientist at the Mayo Clinic recently conducted a study about the calorie-burning effects of "activity-based" video games and found some encouraging results for game fans.

Obesity researcher Lorraine Lanningham-Foster said that she couldn't comment on DeLorenzo's personal experiment but that she had found that kids playing the popular game Dance Dance Revolution, in which players jump around on a dance mat and hit buttons in time with music, can burn as many calories as if they were strenuously exercising.

So popular is the dance game among kids that some schools have worked it into their physical education programs. At Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, "DDR" is a regular part of the exercise offerings for students.

"It gives them a really, really good workout," said Linda Barrett, head of the school's PE department.

Generally speaking, Barrett would prefer sports that teach teamwork and sportsmanlike conduct. But, for this age range, she's happy enough just to have students moving their bodies. "My perspective is: Whatever they do, if it's physically active, it's a plus," she said. "If they're up off the couch and they're moving and physically active, that's what we want."

Barrett was so excited about the game when she first saw it that she ran out and picked up her own copy the same day. She now mixes it into her own workout schedule on days when she doesn't feel like hitting the treadmill.

In Dance Dance Revolution SuperNova, the latest version in the series, the calorie-burning aspect has been built into the game, offering players a "workout" mode that lets them set goals on how many calories they want to burn. Personally, I think playing 20 minutes of DDR gives you more exercise than the Wii sports games would, but DDR also requires a tolerance for Kelly Clarkson and other pop music that I don't quite possess.

For everyone out there rolling eyes at the prospect of people sweating away in front of their TV sets, here's a thought. Some tiny portion of this living room activity will inevitably lead to some "real" exercise -- just as the hit game Guitar Hero has prompted some kids to ask for real guitar lessons.

No, seriously. Each time my fiancee and I pick up the Wii's controller for a few rounds of virtual tennis, she says the same thing: "We should go out and play tennis for real. Wouldn't that be fun?"

Hasn't happened yet -- but when spring comes around, who knows?

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