The industry that has been most maligned for creating a generation of socially inept couch potatoes is on a whole new mission — making fitness fun.
Fueled by the success of music video game Dance Dance Revolution, DDR, which hit the malls in 1998, and more recently the blockbuster sales of motion-controlled gaming consoles for the home, (Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation Move, and Microsoft Kinect), video game manufacturers are delivering an ever growing roster of exergames and interactive fitness technology to health clubs, YMCAs, park and recreation centers and even schools.
Given the size of the fitness and gaming markets, that trend is likely to continue, says Meredith Poppler, vice president of industry growth for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
“Many clubs are getting into offering exergame programming,” she says. “We believe it will continue to grow, since video gaming is here to stay, and more and more [fitness facilities] are realizing that they need to develop creative ways to encourage people of all ages to move.”
According to market research firm IBISWorld, fitness video games for the home have generated $2.4 billion domestically and $5.7 billion worldwide thus far since their debut.
The wholesale size of the fitness industry, meanwhile, which represents gear and equipment sold for use in the home, clubs, and institutions, such as schools, colleges, hospitals, and hotels, was $4.2 billion in 2008, according to the most recent data from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
Among the most popular active play games in the commercial market today are touch screen walls and floor systems that promote multi-player competition, says Ed Kasanders, president of Motion Fitness in Chicago, which makes and distributes active gaming products.
Its touch wall, or T-wall, product, for example, is like a life-size version of the 1970s electronic memory game “Simon,” in which red signals light up in a sequence of varying positions and speeds. Players try to beat the light by quick touch.
Other touch platforms use lights, sound effects and pressure sensitive tiles to create competitive games in which multiple players score points by throwing balls at moving targets, dance on cue, or complete floor-based cardio workouts through group fitness classes.
IDANCE, for example, a popular music video game developed by Positive Gaming, uses up to 32 wireless dance floor platforms with four panels each, allowing for simultaneous play with varying difficulty degrees.
So far, Motion Fitnesshas sold more than 400 exergaming systems to YMCAs, health clubs, Jewish Community Centers, park and recreation centers and even schools nationwide.
Because the technology can usually be programmed with a package of games and exercise routines, it can be customized for different classes throughout the day.
“Fitness clubs are using them during the morning for senior classes that focus on cognition and hand eye coordination, and then change it to Zumba classes in the evening, or group dance for kids in the club’s daycare,” says Kasanders.
Other interactive game products cater to individuals.
Among them, the Absolo, in which a player leans against a reclined chair and uses crunches to shoot balls against an electronic target, and the Skywall, a motorized climbing wall programmed to provide a realistic simulation of rock climbing as the grip pegs move and tilt to the user’s experience level.
Such products, which range in price from a few thousand dollars to more than $30,000, can be a valuable tool for getting sedentary kids on the move, but they’re most successful when used in conjunction with a traditional fitness routine, says Dave James, founder of Fuze - Fit for a Kid!, a kid-only health club in Los Gatos, Calif.
Roughly a third of his equipment is interactive.
Bringing The Burn
“I’ll be honest. Some of the [exergaming] equipment has been garbage and some has been wonderful,” he says. “Kids are not as interested in playing Wii on a 9 foot screen as they are in jumping on a trampoline or playing four square, but it’s a novel way to introduce kids to fitness.”
Multi-player games that keep score and inspire group competition have been most successful at keeping kids engaged at his gym, he notes.
Tweens and teens, of course, who are already well versed in video games and high tech gadgetry, are an obvious fit for interactive technology that encourages physical fitness — particularly given the push by Michelle Obama to combat the incidence of childhood obesity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that roughly 17 percent (12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2 – 19 are obese, a number that has nearly tripled since 1980.
But do exergames really bring the burn?
It depends on the product and the level of intensity applied, research shows. (Some crafty kids have mastered the art of playing Wii Sports with a minimal flick of the wrist.)
A recent study of 39 middle school children by the University of Massachusetts Boston, for example, found that some interactive video games “compared favorably with walking on a treadmill at three miles per hour.”
The study, which tested six commercial and consumer products, (Wii Fit Boxing, Jackie Chan Alley Run by Xavix, Cybex Trazer Goalie Wars, Lightspace Bug Invasion, Sportwall, and Dance Dance Revolution) , found that several of the games surpassed treadmill walking in calories burned.
The Sportwall by XerGames, for example, which allows large groups to train, dance and activate targets on a single screen, had the highest metabolic equivalent task value, or MET, which measures how much oxygen the body uses during a physical activity. At 7.1, it came in well ahead of the 4.9 MET value for walking on the treadmill at 3 miles per hour.
The Nintendo Wii Boxing game was the only game to score lower than treadmill walking, while DDR scored slightly higher.
“I think there is promise in this area; kids will always want to play and they will always want a new toy,” says Ann Maloney, a research at the Maine Medical Center, which is working on an exergaming project targeted at childhood obesity under a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for improving healthcare. “The trick is to figure out the when, where, who, why and side effects from this. What is the dose needed? How long to take the treatment? I think we are moving forward on this, which is good news for a lot of kids.”
Apart from the health benefits of exergames, Kasanders says such technology is also helping players develop more self-confidence.
“The goal is to teach lifelong lessons in fitness and this is one way to capture those kids and start changing their behavior,” he says. “It’s the gamer kids you always hear about who sit on the couch and are not into sports. Those kids can now compete with their peers who are athletes and they can probably do as good or better at wall games than them, which levels the playing field. It helps them to start feeling better about themselves."