The virtual gym: the future of fitness?

5 May 2008

The virtual gym'Exergaming' may be a lot more fun than a session in the gym or running round the block on a cold winter's morning, but is the eagerly awaited Wii Fit a substitute for our normal exercise regime – or just an entertaining add-on?

The active exercise game Wii Fit has just been launched in the UK and looks set to become as popular as its predecessor Wii Sports – the package of active minigames included with the Wii game console when it was launched in the UK at the end of 2006. According to its maker Nintendo, Wii Fit "combines fitness and fun in your own home" and employs the latest technology to help us lead a healthier lifestyle.


To play Wii Fit you'll need a Wii console, which connects to your TV. The game comes with the Wii Balance Board and Wii Fit software that calculates your centre of gravity and body mass index (BMI) and gives you a Wii Fit Age based on how you perform in an initial balance test. Your Wii Fit Age is the benchmark of your improving fitness, explains Nintendo – and the more you train, the harder the game makes you work
Wii Fit includes more than 40 exercises, including aerobics, muscle conditioning, yoga and balance activities, as well as minigames like ski jumping and tightrope walking. Up to eight people in the household can save and monitor the results of their workouts, although you can keep your results secret if you prefer.

Active vs sedentary video games

The results of the few studies on active video games carried out to date suggest that, while they're an improvement on sedentary video games, they fall short on measures of exercise intensity. One small UK study compared the energy expenditure of a group of teens when playing a sedentary computer game and three active Wii Sports games for 15 minutes at a time. The researchers found that playing the Wii Sports games used significantly more energy than playing the sedentary game, but not as much energy as playing the sport itself.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the authors concluded, "The energy used when playing active Wii Sports games was not of high enough intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children."

Personal fitness coach Lucy Wyndham-Read believes that one of the benefits of Wii Fit is that it may encourage and motivate hitherto sedentary people to become a little more active and be more aware of their current fitness level. "The BMI measurement is a useful way of telling you if you're a healthy weight for your height," she says, "although this is only suitable for adults, and does not apply to pregnant woman and children."

"Wii Fit is a great way of correcting your postural balance," she adds, "as the wireless board you stand on has sensors to detect your position and balance. It also improves your general body awareness."

Don't cancel the gym membership just yet!

Lucy cautions, however, that the Wii Fit exercises are not strenuous enough to count towards the government's recommended amount of exercise for adults of 30 minutes daily at least five times a week. "To achieve an effective exercise routine, you need to train to the correct intensity, which should be somewhat hard," she says. "Any less will be ineffective for improving your health – although it will be better than doing nothing!"


"Not only do we need to work out at the right intensity," explains Lucy, "but it's essential that we target all our muscle groups through their fullest range of movement. Wii Fit certainly encourages you to stretch and bend, but with other forms of exercises, like gymnastics, swimming, rounders and tennis, your body naturally works all your muscles through the fullest range."


She concludes, "In summary, it's certainly going to burn more calories than playing Scrabble, but it will never get you as fit as taking part in the real thing."


Wii Fit retails at around £69.99 and the Wii game console (which includes Wii Sports) at around £179.99.