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Some fitness video games may not leave you breathless

November 30, 2009 |  4:44 pm

With the holidays upon us, no doubt some people will be considering fitness video games for gifts, because they've been touted by some health experts as a good way for people to get some exercise without leaving their living rooms. It appears, however, the games may not all be created equal.

K14lsunc Take the Wii Fit, for example. Thought to be a good way to get kids, especially, off the couch and moving, some experts now believe some games may have limitations. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse tested 16 men and women ages 20 to 24 on a treadmill to find their maximum heart rate and maximum oxygen uptake (called VO2max). They were then shown how to use the Wii games, which included Free Run, Island Run, Free Step, Advanced Step, Super Hula Hoop and Rhythm Boxing -- games the researchers determined were the most aerobically challenging. Participants had their heart and VO2Max rates monitored while playing.

Island Run and Free Run scored the highest, burning 5.5 calories a minute, raising heart rates to 60% of maximum and VO2max to 38% of maximum. The other games showed a lower calorie burn, from 3.3 calories a minute for Free Step to 3.8 for Rhythm Boxing. Comparing the games Free Step and Advanced Step to the real thing, the real thing fared better: the average step-aerobics class burns about 11.8 calories a minute.

A similar 2008 University of Wisconsin study tested Wii Sports games. Though playing the games did burn calories and elevate heart rates, the numbers weren't spectacular. Playing golf burned about 3.1 calories per minute, raised heart rate to 50% of maximum, and elicited 20% of VO2max. Tennis came in at 5.3 calories per minute, 59% of maximum heart rate and 33% of VO2max, and boxing scored highest at 7.2 calories, 74% of maximum heart rate, and 44% of VO2max.

Boxing's score qualified it as the only game that the American College of Sports Medicine considers powerful enough to increase or maintain cardiorespiratory fitness. Again, playing the real game burned more calories: Virtual baseball only burned an average of 4.5 calories a minute, while the real thing burns 7.3 calories a minute. Faux tennis: 5.3 calories. Real tennis: 8.1 calories.

But another game fared a bit better ...

...Dancetown, an exergame similar to Dance Dance Revolution, in which people follow steps shown on a video screen.

In this study, 24 people aged 32 to 70 danced to three songs in escalating degrees of difficulty, from easy to moderate to hard, while heart rates and VO2max levels were monitored.

At the easy level, caloric burn averaged 3.8 calories a minute, heart rates averaged 59% of maximum and VO2max came in at 31%. Hard levels averaged a 5.3 calorie per minute burn, 67% of maximum heart rate, and 44% of VO2max. The hard level is equivalent to walking at 3 miles per hour, or square dancing, and both moderate and hard levels are enough to maintain and improve cardiorespiratory endurance. Researchers speculate that the participants got slightly better results because they were older.

"One reason we wanted to study the games is because we wanted to manage people's expectations of their results," says Cedric X. Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. "It's certainly better than most video game approaches, in that they tend to be sedentary endeavors, but there are limitations."

Bryant suggests that people think active video games are part of an exercise spectrum that includes more intense workouts, as well as less intense ones that may be more fun. "It could also be a terrific entry point for the proverbial couch potato," he adds.

"The video game manufacturers are trying to make the video experience more engaging and fun for the participants," Bryant says. "The challenge you face is that you can't really perfectly simulate the real thing, so you're not going to get the same dose of exercise or the same level of results from participating. But they certainly are helping to attract more people who probably wouldn't do anything active."

The results from the studies can be found in the November/December issue of ACE Fitness Matters, published by the American Council on Exercise.

-Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty Images