May 19, 2008 (New York) -- The U.S. debut of Nintendo's Wii Fit system suggests that the trend of breaking a sweat and raising your heart rate while twirling a virtual hula hoop or fighting off avatars is most definitely here to stay.
Nintendo on Monday released Wii Fit, the latest addition to the virtual exercise or "exertainment" category. The Wii Fit system offers 40 games in four categories -- yoga, aerobics, balance, and strength training. Wii Fit games include hula hooping, snowboarding, step aerobics, and yoga.
The full-day launch event took place at an entryway into New York City's Central Park, where hordes of busy urbanites of all ages were invited to hula hoop or strike a yoga pose on the new Wii Fit balance board as a cadre of elite trainers showed them the (virtual) ropes.
Wii Fit's Role as 'Personal Trainer'
Wii Fit and other virtual exercise platforms basically meet gamers where they live -- the couch. With Wii Fit, participants stand on the balance board in front of the television and move and groove along with the instructions and graphics. Instead of the traditional joysticks, the body serves as the conduit.
The Wii Fit system also serves as a personal trainer of sorts by providing feedback and tracking progress. A player's "Mii character" actually reflects these changes; if you slim down, so to does your virtual counterpart. Every person in a household gets his or her own character and can chart progress separately.
"It's intuitive," says celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, the author of 5-factor Fitness, who was on hand at the launch event. "As you become better, it unlocks newer games and increases the intensity so you do more repetitions as you progress."
And this is just the "tip of the iceberg" when it comes to virtual exercise, he predicts. Still, he says, "it doesn't replace going to the gym or playing on a softball team. It's yet another tool in the toolbox of active living."
With the growing epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S., there is no doubt that the new system can help children shed excess weight and become more active. But it's not just for kids, Pasternak tells WebMD.
"Everybody is in the target audience," he says."I got beaten by a 9-year-old and a 72-year-old at hula hooping so far today." Still, he cautions, individuals with a pre-existing medical condition or those who have been sedentary should check with a doctor before beginning any new exercise program, even a virtual one.
First came Dance, Dance Revolution, a video arcade game where wannabe dancers follow on-screen visual cues as they step on a sensor pad to the beat of popular tunes. Dance, Dance Revolution -- or DDR -- is sort of a twist on the classic board game Twister, replete with several levels to match a person's dancing skills.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) conducted a study of this game on 24 people aged 12 to 25. All participants showed a marked increase in exercise intensity and burned a similar number of calories as they would if they were participating in other forms of aerobic activity.
"We found that Dance, Dance Revolution does burn a comparable amount of calories as other aerobic workouts," says ACE spokesman Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist in San Diego.
Games like Dance, Dance Revoultion and Wii Fit System put the fun back in exercise, and that is what has been missing, he tells WebMD. "So many people became disengaged because exercise seems to be work and not a pleasant experience. [Virtual exercise] has touched on a cord that is important in fitness and that is to make things fun."
The mantra, Comana says, is "let's keep them distracted so they stay engaged and do their workouts and don't think about sweating." While there are some downsides to virtual fitness, the benefits do outweigh any negatives, he says.
One potential downside is that these games are really just Band-aids, he says. "If I distract you with television to tolerate a workout, what happens if there is nothing to distract you? If we take away the balance pad or the iPod, you will go back to saying, 'I hate this.'"
But "if it gets a family at home doing something, we'll take it," he says. That said, Wii Fit probably won't appeal to true fitness buffs. "We will do it to try it, but it will not be part of our daily training modality."
Wii Fit and the balance board retails for $89.99. It is now available exclusively at the Nintendo World Store. The system will be available at retail stores across the country on May 21.