Since the 1980′s, video games have traditionally been the enemy of many of health and fitness advocates. Fitness experts balk at the thought of young individuals, who once spent the majority of their free time outdoors and playing sports, sitting idly on the couch in front of the television set, mashing away at the buttons on their controllers for hours on end.
However, as with all things in life, the video game industry has changed and evolved over the last several years and, in fact, has begun producing fitness-based interactive videos.
In the past half-decade, all major video game consoles have introduced fitness hardware add-ons, including the Wii Fit for the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation Move for the Sony PS3, and Xbox Kinect for the Microsoft Xbox 360.
A countless number of video fitness games that have been designed to take advantage of this hardware has led to households everywhere beginning to compile a large stock of games centered mostly around dance, aerobics and a variety of other forms of cardiovascular activity.
Do Fitness Video Games Really Provide a Good Workout?
So, the real question is do do fitness video games work by providing significant benefits to your overall health and fitness? Or are they just another distraction, tempting us to avoid our “real” workouts at the gym?
According to several experts, fitness video games really work – but only if they cause you achieve an aerobic effect (defined as elevating your heart rate to or near its target level for at least 20 minutes), and only if you participate with a high level of frequency.
What’s Your Fitness Level?
Allan Goldfarb, an exercise and sport science professor working at the University of North Carolina, said that your decision to participate in fitness video games as a form of exercise should primarily depend on your current fitness level. The question of do fitness video games work depends largely on your current fitness level and the dedication you put into a program.
Do you lead a sedentary lifestyle, working a desk job during the day, commuting via public transportation or car, and relaxing in front of the TV or with a book before going to bed for the evening? For the millions of people that generally match this profile, regularly playing fitness video games could be a big step in the right direction.
Not only will fitness video games get you off the couch and moving, but they may act as a “fitness bridge,” providing the motivation necessary to pursue more rigorous and regular fitness activities.
Alternatively, you may be a serious athlete or a dedicated fitness seeker, already participating in strenuous exercise several times a week. You probably work out with a heart rate monitor, and you might even be training for some upcoming athletic competitions.
If this sounds more like your style, fitness video games could be a big step backwards. That’s because the vast majority of fitness video games can’t provide a workout anywhere near the level of intensity you’re probably accustomed to.
If You’re Going to Do it, Do it Right
Richard Lampman, a physical medicine rehabilitation professor at the University of Michigan, said that any cardiovascular activity becomes beneficial once you’re doing it 3 times a week, 30 minutes per session, and with a heart rate of at least 70% of your maximum for most of each session. He said that there’s no disputing the fitness benefits of any games that allow you to do this.
The question, then, is whether fitness games can actually achieve these metrics. Obviously, variables such as “for how long” and “how often” are in the hands of consumers. However, the last variable (your elevated heart rate during exercise) is at least partially dependent on the activities and motions that the game asks you to perform.
Success Stories and Studies
A number of fitness video game success stories have been posted on blogs and message boards over the last few years, but the scientific validity of each success story depends on the participant’s way of playing the game, as well as other factors such as diet and other forms of physical activity beyond fitness gaming.
In 2010, UK researchers found that the heart rates of those who played Wii Fit did not reach beneficial cardiovascular levels, on average. Another 2010 study, this time conducted in Wisconsin, confirmed that older adults playing Wii Fit only achieved an average of 43% of their target heart rates.
Experts including Ernie Medina, CEO of MedPlay Technologies and a preventative care specialist for a medical group in California, said that these studies shouldn’t discourage potential fitness gamers because certain games provide a workout that’s far more intense that what comes with the standard Wii Fit package. He specifically cited EA Sports Active 2 as a great example of a fitness game for those at higher fitness levels.
Dance games such as Just Dance, Zumba Fitness, Dance Dance Revolution and their various sequels and spin-offs should help to bridge the gap between casual and hardcore exercisers, so long as you’re comfortable with a dance-based fitness routine.
Do Fitness Video Games Work?
Many experts say that fitness video games may be most appropriate as a complimentary component of your overall fitness routine, one that includes serious strength training, other forms of cardiovascular, and of course, a balanced, nutritious, calorie-conscious diet. If you use fitness games as an excuse to eat more junk food or fail to make any real changes to a currently-poor diet, your weight loss results should be minimal.
While Medina agreed that a nutritious and calorie-conscious diet is a key ingredient to any solid fitness plan, he said that fitness games could theoretically account for the majority of your cardiovascular exercise, so long as you’re willing to take the games seriously and participate regularly at a high level of intensity.
Medina further said that you could jog outdoors, run on a treadmill, regularly perform an aerobics class, mountain bike, or play video fitness games – your “heart doesn’t really care,” so long as you elevate your heart rate up and physically move around.