Do fitness games actually work? – An experiment
Back in May I wrote a column on the proven health benefits of videogames. Despite providing a good deal of scientific and anecdotal evidence on the effectiveness of gaming for weight loss, fitness and healthy living, I proceeded to forget everything I had written and return to playing games in my underwear, in a darkened room with a big bag of chips and salsa on my lap and a huge bottle of cola resting on a pile of discarded pizza boxes. I am of course exaggerating a little with that description. I don’t always have salsa.
During our recent podcast though, we had a high proportion of females to males (well, 50-50) and the subject invariably turned to diets. Three of the podcast members were struggling to a greater or lesser degree with their lifestyle and diet. Whether it was a lack of exercise, difficulty with making good dietary choices or dissatisfaction with our chubby tummies, we all wanted to make a change. As gamers, we decided we would take our own advice from our previous article and use our hobby to help. Games have been our entertainment all our lives, can they be our personal trainers too?
In our previous article, we said:
While formerly a purely sedentary pastime, videogames have recently become the equivalent of the angry drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. They bark instructions at us like: “Jump”, “run on the spot”, ”sing, “dance”, “do press ups”, “play drums”, “stretch” and “throw a controller into a flat screen tv”. And how do we react to these instructions? We obey them of course! Like we do with any Space Commander asking us to wipe out a race of insectoid bio-aliens, or an Elven lord asking us to free the Kingdom of Nonsensia, we as gamers are programmed to do as we are told.
The benefit of this unthinking obedience is that it can make us engage in positive activities. We follow instructions so well that we will even leave the comfortable womb of our sofa ass-groove and physically sweat. We will do exercise, real exercise, if incentivised to do it by a game. Decades of TV documentaries have warned us about the dangers of heart disease, but its games like Dance Central, Warioware Smooth Moves and Wii Fit that have actually make us use our atrophied limbs for something other than shovelling food and lifting a remote. Sure, we don’t all play these games, but the people who do (and who take them seriously) see real world benefits. You know, little benefits like living ten years longer.
The only problem with the explosion of exercise games is the horrible terms that have been coined by researchers to describe them. I mean, exergaming, and exertainment? Seriously?
Despite the icky-ness of these terms, games like Wii Fit have made it semi-feasible to become fit and healthy without having to venture outside. This is a huge benefit to gamers who stereotypically fear the things that exist in the outside world like sunlight, human interaction and those confusing but intriguing individuals we know as “females”.
Despite what I said back then, “females” are of course half of us. Gaming has never been more popular with both genders, and it is in fitness games that women make up the largest proportion of the market. Women are just as likely as men to use exercise games to tone their bodies and lose weight. In fact, they are probably far more likely to do so. Looking at the fitness games market, titles like Zumba Fitness and Get Fit with Mel B are threatening intrusions into our games stores for hardcore gamers. Despite our apprehensions, for women looking for a fun form of exercise that’s more rewarding than running on a treadmill like a hamster, these titles are tempting. Meanwhile the market has started to target men too, with the uber-testosterone fueled UFC Trainer trying to make stretching and skipping more manly.
To give these titles a chance, we decided to give ourselves a challenge and set up a small experiment. Each of us would choose one game to help us achieve a fitness or health goal we set ourselves. As execise in itself is largely useless without dietary discipline, each of us also choose a different healthy eating plan to try. We would be giving ourselves a real challenge too; we were picking the diet and fitness regimen that we would each find the most challenging.
So with no more messing around, lets bring in our three test subjects!
Subject 1 – Eresin
Fitness Game: Ea Sports Active 2
Eating plan: Calorie Controlled Diet
Weight: 160 lbs
Target Weight: 132 lbs
Fitness Goal: To lose 28 lbs and some inches off the waist
Eresin was the catalyst for this article and the main driving force behind our games-for-fitness experiment. She exercises every day and uses a calorie controlled diet for weight loss, but despite this her progress has been slow. She hopes that by using EA Sports Active 2 she can accelerate her weight loss while making exercise more engaging and fun. By using EA Sports Active’s series of sensors that pick up movements and heart rate, it creates a fitness plan tailored to the individual and there’s a good deal of proper research and scientific rigour that’s been put into its development. To complement this she is counting her calories using an iPhone App (My Fitness Pal), and trying to eat as healthily as she can.
Subject 2 – Tom
Fitness Game: Dance Central
Eating plan: Vegetarian
Weight: 168 lbs
Target Weight: 147 lbs
Fitness Goal: To lose 21 lbs and many inches off the waist
I was a fit and active person for maybe 6 months of my 31 year lifespan. During that time I was kickboxing, eating well and training to be a shorter, more Scottish version of Sagat. It didn’t last and I am now a short, more Scottish version of a short, fat Scotsman. I am also a dedicated lifelong carnivore, so when seeking to set myself a challenge I decided I would try a healthy, balanced but vegetarian diet. One of my friends responded to my choice as follows,
“Vegetarian? That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. You eat a meal every two hours. You’re like a cow or a horse….which you would also eat by the way”
I would make sure to get protein where I could from nuts, soya and eggs. This would of course mean I would not be watching my favourite tv program – Man VS Food – for quite some time.
For my fitness I will be playing a lot of Dance Central. I will be using the workout mode and playing for 20 minutes most nights. It will be 20 minutes of actual play time too, not just 20 minutes of time playing with the menus and laughing at pictures of myself. Overall this will be tough. The combination of vegetarianism and dancing has prompted my friends to ask me the same question every time I see them: “Hey Tom, hows the vagina?”.
Subject 3 – Thumper Nats
Fitness Game: Wii Fit/Zumba Fit
Eating plan: No more cakes
Weight: probably, like 2 lbs
Target Weight: probably, like 2.5 lbs
Fitness Goal: To tone up and be able to run for the train
Unlike the others in this experiment, Thumper Nats has no plans to try to lose weight. Indeed she is already annoyingly slim and photogenic.
Thumper Nats has a problem though. She loves to sleep. I mean she really loves to sleep; so much so in fact that she almost always has to run for the train each morning. This has led to all my early morning meetings with her involving more wheezing and chest pains than is entirely comfortable. She plans to get fit by following the exercise plans in Wii Fit and Zumba Fitness and by cutting down on her frankly ridiculous sugar and cake consumption. By eating fuller healthier meals and avoiding eating so much sugar she hopes her healthy diet, combined with adequate protein and other nutrients in main meals, will help her tone up too.
So that’s our plan. We will be back in two weeks – half way through our program – to update you on how we are all doing. Wish us luck!