The News Journal – Feb 01, 2008 – Hiran Ratnayake – During respites from punching the red buttons on my joystick, I noshed Doritos and Swiss cake rolls — and soon noticed that my adolescent frame was growing a paunch.

Not long after, my parents signed me up for the wrestling team. Although it was a radical upheaval from my previous pressure-free lifestyle, I developed a penchant for exercise, and my interest in video games vanished.

Until a few months ago.

That’s when many of my cohorts began extolling the wonders of the Wii. Manufactured by Nintendo, the Wii is the sixth evolution of its console. But unlike other game consoles, users must stand up and move around to play the Wii sports games, such as boxing, baseball, tennis and more.

A small study in the British Medical Journal, funded by a Nintendo consulting firm, found that children playing an active Wii game burned 60 more calories per hour than those playing Microsoft’s Xbox 360, although not as many calories as the real thing. Another small study, published in the current journal Pediatrics, found similar results. Slightly obese children increased their energy output nearly fivefold by playing the Wii’s dancing game and using the Sony PlayStation 2’s EyeToy, which allows people to catch objects interactively.

Nintendo is capitalizing on this new way to exercise. Demand for the $250 console at Christmastime was similar to the Tickle Me Elmo phenomenon a few years back.

There’s even an online “WiiHealthy” fitness forum that users can join. And some gyms are now offering Wii workout stations, including the Cooper Aerobics Center at Craig Ranch in McKinney, Texas.

“The kids love it, and we’ve gotten several positive responses from their parents,” said fitness director David McGarry. “They tell their mom and dad that they want to go to the fitness center because they want to go play.”

I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Time for some method journalism.

{}Batter up! (Sort of)

My local gym lacked a Wii workout station. However, the living room in Adam Pachowka’s home in Pike Creek offered a makeshift one. The self-described “gamer” has owned 10 consoles and got the Wii in November of 2006.

I helped him push his couch away from his TV to give us ample space to play the baseball game.

Pachowka, 26, went first. He brought the Wii controller behind his head with his left hand. A second after the pitch was released, he uncoiled, lining the ball into the outfield for a hit. He slapped another hit on the second pitch. Of the 30 pitches thrown, he hit 22.

“The first time I played this game I whiffed on every single pitch,” said Pachowka. “But even then I felt like it got the heart rate up a bit, and it burned some calories.”

I was up next. Crouching into a stance, I felt like I was at the batting cages. I stepped into the pitch and swung my Wii remote, which vibrated upon virtual contact. A ball sailed toward the centerfielder for an out. In the end I got 15 hits, but I swung at every pitch. I was being active, but I was wielding only a 2-ounce remote instead of a Louisville slugger. Nary a bead of sweat graced my brow.

“It’s not going to build any muscle,” said Pachowka, a former high school soccer and lacrosse player. “It’s not going to replace a workout. The few times I go to the gym I feel a lot more tired. But if you’re getting zero exercise, this is a great way to start.”

McGarry said ideally, the Wii could be used to complement exercise, like a warmup. But for overweight children — and adults — it may at least kindle an interest in exercise.

“We have such a problem with childhood obesity, so you want to target those kids and find a way to get them physically active,” he said. “If this is something that will help us we should use it. Long-term, you see the cost of health care now.”

{}’It won’t compare to a workout’

In the British Medical Journal study, teens burned 179 calories playing Wii tennis and 174 calories playing Wii boxing. At rest, they burned an average of 72 calories per hour.

The researchers also found, however, that those kids burned twice as many calories punching an actual boxing bag.

“It won’t compare to a workout because it’s far less beneficial,” said Michael Rogers, an exercise physiologist and research director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University in Kansas. “But the bottom line is that if you can get people to be more active than they are normally, it’s going to have some benefits.”

And not just for youngsters. At some retirement communities, senior citizens who’ve never played a video game in their life are having trouble putting the Wii controller down. The biggest hit with the older crowd is the Wii bowling game, in which players simulate the hand motion involved in rolling the bowling ball.

“[Traditional] bowling can lead to a fall, and so can tennis,” Rogers said. “But one could argue that this is safer for older adults and a good way to promote physical activity.”

{}Come on, get hyper

Next, I visited Heather Takayama at her home in Middletown. Takayama, a personal trainer at the Zone Fitness and Wellness Center in Bear, has owned a Wii since December and her children, 8-year-old Jacob and 12-year-old Sophia, love it.

First, I played tennis against Jacob. There was no running back and forth to stretch for balls. I simply turned my hips to the right and swung the remote for each forehand; I went to the left for each backhand. The Wii vibrated with each swing. It felt like a slow version of ping pong.

Jacob, on the other hand, looked like Jimmy Connors circa 1974. He jumped when he served, darted to his left for backhands and to his right for forehands. He seemed to be burning a lot more calories than I was.

“I’d rather have him play outside,” Heather Takayama said. “But he’s a bit hyper, so I feel like he’s using up some energy when he plays this.”

We moved on to pugilism. The day before, boxing with Pachowka felt more like playing the drums. You only scored solid hits when you snapped your elbows at the bag — the soreness from this movement is now being referred to as “Wii elbow.” Takayama, who teaches kickboxing, said the shoulders can be strengthened by having to block punches. But to maximize the energy expended, she gets creative when she boxes on the game.

“I do my own bobs and weaves when I play,” she said. “It makes you more active, and it gives your abs a workout.”

One popular game that doesn’t come with the Wii but can be bought separately can, in fact, give you a lot of exercise. In Dance Dance Revolution, a musically synchronized video game series, players use their feet to push pads on a mat, responding to arrows that appear on the screen. Kids love it, and it can provide an aerobic workout.

Newark resident Brett Giblin, who works out five days a week, said it’s the only Wii game that challenges his heart rate. But even then, he said, it won’t be an alternative to the gym.

“You’d have to do that game every day if you want to get in shape, and who’s going to do that?” said Giblin, 23. “In the end, it’s a video game.”

{}Tougher workouts ahead

I found that Giblin is right. The Wii is a lot of fun — much more so than my Nintendo Entertainment System of old — but it is still just a video game. I didn’t get a workout, let alone even break a sweat, while playing baseball or boxing.

But who knows? Maybe a decade from now, games you play in your living room will be as challenging as biking in the Alps.

To that end, Nintendo recently released Wii Fit in Japan, and it will hit the U.S. market by midyear. The game uses a plastic step as a controller that senses the pressure of the player’s feet. Wii Fit, which features aerobics, yoga, ski and soccer, also tracks the player’s activity and body mass index.

Like many others, sports psychologist John F. Murray of Palm Beach, Fla., believes the games can promote activity, especially among the couch-potato set. But he also thinks enough time is already spent in front of a computer or television screen. And he said the Wii isn’t going to be the key to reversing the nation’s obesity trend.

“There’s no substitute for the real thing,” he said. “We need to encourage the exercise over the gimmick.”

“But,” he added, “it’s a step in the right direction.”

{}The Wii thing vs. the real thing

A Nintendo-funded study in the British Medical Journal compared Wii workouts to real ones. Researchers tracked a dozen girls and boys ages 13 to 15 and measured how many calories they burned playing Wii tennis, boxing and bowling. The kids burned more calories playing Wii tennis and boxing than traditional video games. But they burned twice as much energy boxing with a punching bag than playing the Wii boxing game.

A study in the journal Pediatrics looked at two groups of children. One group had their energy output measured while they sat and watched TV and played a traditional video game. The other group played activity-required video games and watched TV while walking on a treadmill. The energy output for the latter group tripled in children of normal weight and quintupled for mildly obese children.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.