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We turn to Wii to lose weight instead of real exercise

Photo courtesy of mctcampus.com

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Obesity is out of fashion. America has finally caught on that the correlation between obesity and Type 2 diabetes is high. Accordingly, influential figures and organizations are backing programs to counteract childhood obesity. First lady Michelle Obama is backing the “Let’s Move!” program, and the NFL sponsors the “Play 60” plan to encourage kids to exercise.

The video game industry, which has traditionally profited from keeping its customers on the couch, has found ways to deal with the trend by creating motion-sensing devices that require the player to move to beat the game.

Nintendo was far ahead of the curve with the Wii, but Xbox and PlayStation responded soon enough with the Kinect and Move, respectively. These devices weren’t invented for the sake of exercise, but sports games are among the most popular titles, so it’s just as well. Problem solved, right?

Maybe. If you consider Jets coach Rex Ryan to be in shape.

Movement-oriented games are better for a gamer’s health than “Super Mario World,” but video game companies are a long way from replacing traditional exercise.

One of the main culprits is the wildly successful “Wii Fit” title. The game begins by giving a fitness test that generates the fitness “age” of the player. According to the game’s website, the number is generated by taking the player’s BMI and balance into account (balance is measured by a test administered by the game). The idea is that, over time, your character (and you) will decrease in fitness age by playing the game.

A cross-country runner by nature, I was unpleasantly surprised when “Wii Fit” declared me to be a 32-year-old (I was 21 at the time). After crying myself to sleep that night, I realized the game was leading me on. I can run 12 miles. My 8-year-old cousin can’t. “Wii Fit” said my cousin was the fitness equivalent of Mark Spitz.

The issue is that video games such as “Wii Fit” and similar sports titles are being touted as more relevant to good health than they truly are. Again, these games are much better for a player’s health than their predecessors but they are misleading consumers and in the process, distracting them from the real-life health benefits of exercise.

It’s easy for a misinformed parent to make an ill-informed decision. Parents naturally want what’s best for their children but they’ve got time management issues as well. They see products like “Wii Fit” and assume that it’s a suitable replacement for actual exercise. They push worries about their children’s well-being to the backseat because they assume Nintendo has it covered.

Part of the problem is that Americans assume that anything that involves burning calories qualifies as exercise. During high school, a classmate earnestly told me that his workout regiment consisted of “making out” because he had read that kissing burned 17 calories every 15 minutes. Sad, but true.

Many also assume that motion-sensing video game exercise is on par with real exercise because they put just as much effort into it. For example, when people play Wii tennis, they tend to swing just as hard as they would on an actual tennis court (often resulting in broken bones and televisions). But Rafael Nadal isn’t in great shape because he can hit a tennis ball 130 mph. He’s in shape because he has to chase the ball all over the court, a step that Wii dumbs down.

I’ll say it one last time, just for effect: Gaming systems like the Wii and Xbox Kinect aren’t bad for you. They make great training wheels for someone who isn’t used to regular exercise. But at some point, you need to take off the training wheels and go for an actual bike ride.

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