Health Notes: Wii Fit fitness benefits depend on who’s doing the study

Are Wii Fit activity systems all they are cracked up to be? Two studies just out have contradicting results on the benefits of using the Wii.
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You want information about health, physical activity, exercise and wellness, but you don’t want all the techno-science garble that makes most reports overwhelming to read, let alone understand. In SNEWS® Health Notes, an occasional series, we take a look at recent research and explain it in a way that makes sense. If you have suggestions or comments, let us know!

In this issue, we looked at two studies just out that have contradicting results on the benefits of using the Wii activity systems.

>> Can Wii Fit help you get fit? Only a wee bit.

A little more than a year ago the folks at the American Council on Exercise took a look at the Wii system of active games such as baseball and bowling to see if they really did help overall fitness. They did, of course, use more calories than sitting on the couch, but not as many as the real thing. (Click here to see a Sept. 22, 2008, SNEWS summary.)

Wii Fit was just hitting it big, and ACE (www.acefitness.org) promised to take a harder look at it. Researchers, again from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse Exercise and Health Program, put college-age volunteers through the paces on six Wii Fit activities after baseline fitness testing.

Turns out none of the six elicited enough of an aerobic response to maintain or improve cardiorespiratory endurance, as defined by the American College of Sports Medicine (www.acsm.org). Two programs called Free Run and Island Run had the highest calorie use at 5.5 per minute, while Free Step used 3.3 per minute, Advanced Step had 3.6, Super Hula Hoop used 3.7 and Rhythm Boxing had 3.8. For those unfamiliar, these are virtual activities, so you run in place or hula-hoop without the hoop and step without steps.

We at SNEWS have actually done all of these and found them entertaining -- like charades at a party -- but hardly an aerobic challenge. Sure, we felt our heart-rate go up a bit and “glistened” some (hardly a sweat), but were we getting a workout? Nah.

And that’s what the researchers concluded: Better than nothing but not as good as the real thing or as good as other activities. Frankly, we found the silly cartoon characters we were supposed to watch while we “ran” utterly goofy and running in place in the living room? Worse than drip torture. We did get a kick out of the hula-hoop game but be prepared to look dang stupid twisting around in place like a demented nut case trying to get away from a swarm of mosquitoes.

So what? For those consumers or customers who think they don’t need more of a workout, they are kidding themselves. For those retailers who are worried the Wii will steal their business? They are also misled. Use this study to show consumers if needed that the Wii Fit may be a fun supplement -- and it’s certainly better than nothing -- but it’s not as good as a real workout of any level.

For the scientifically minded: The study’s results were published in the November-December issue of ACE Fitness Matters. Click here to find it.

>> Can Wii Fit help you get fit? Weeee-ll sure.

In a study presented at the American Heart Association’s scientific meeting on Nov. 16, 2009, researchers on the contrary found that a third of Wii Sport and Wii Fit participants had energy expenditures equal to moderate-intensity exercise.

So happens the study was funded by Nintendo. Researchers out of Japan concluded that active video games can prevent or improve obesity and diseases.

Moderate intensity is defined as 3-6 “METs” (those are metabolic equivalents that measure use of oxygen and therefore intensity) -- with light exercise less than 3 and vigorous exercise higher than 6. For example, walking at about 3 mph on a flat surface has been shown to be equal to about 3.3 METs, making it a low-level moderate exercise. Recommendations for healthy physical activity include participation in 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week -- less if it is vigorous.

“Energy expenditure is the most important information to measure the effect of video games,” Motohiko Miyachi, Ph.D., lead author of the study, said in an American Heart Association statement. He is project leader of Project for Physical Activity in the Health Promotion and Exercise Program at the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Tokyo, Japan.

Researchers used a metabolic chamber to measure the energy expenditure of 12 men and women, 25 to 44 years old. Of 46 activities measured, 14 ranked as moderate expending more than 4 METs. Thirty-two were light at 3 METs or less.

“The range of energy expenditure in these active games is sufficient to prevent or to improve obesity and lifestyle-related disease, from heart disease and diabetes to metabolic diseases,” Miyachi said.

On the Wii Fit, the most effective exercise is the single-arm stand, coming in at 5.6 METs. In general, the intensities of yoga and balance exercise were significantly lower than those of resistance and aerobic exercise, researchers said. Of Wii Sports, boxing was the most effective at 4.5 METs, while others were all below 3.0.

So what? OK, so we don’t really know how effective these activities are and we suspect they will vary greatly depending on the person and how they are doing them. As above, they are certainly better than nothing but mostly not enough for overall fitness. Let’s be real: How many people can or will do a single-arm stand for 150 minutes a week?

For the scientifically minded: The complete release from the American Heart Association can be found by clicking here. Also on the page is a video interview with the researcher. 

--Therese Iknoian

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