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Virtual Sports, Real Fitness

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
March 2008 Issue
February 10, 2008

Virtual Sports, Real Fitness

Middle schools are using the video game Dance Dance Revolution as part of gym class. Senior citizens are forming bowling leagues that compete using Nintendo Wii Bowling. Virtual activities that once exercised nothing more than thumbs are turning into real workouts and real fitness.

Reports of teens shedding pounds playing video games have appeared in several newspapers, as well as being featured on CNN. The University of Tennessee is even studying the effectiveness of using Dance Dance Revolution to help motivate severely obese adolescents.

I admit that I won’t be using “DDR” until there is a “Classic Rock” edition, but some of the other virtual activities I have seen recently have me intrigued. In fact, I’m starting to think there are some benefits to the virtual world.

Recently, I wandered into one of those stores that specialize in expensive toys for adults. Normally, I sit in one of their heated massage chairs, imagining I could afford the robotic chess set with an arm that moves the pieces. Not this time. They had indoor golf for your house. This was amazing.
You use your real golf clubs and real golf balls, indoors. A net stops the ball, with special sensors measuring the direction and speed of the ball. The results of your swing are displayed on a television. It’s like any video game version of golf, except for the price. For “under $4000” the salesman in French cuffs told me, you get the basic setup and one course.

 Another December foggy day? No problem. Too hot in August for an afternoon tee time? No problem. You can play golf anytime, on any major course in the world. I admit, I’m not a golfer, but something this cool might convince me to try.

I do own an exercise bike, though, and the I-Magic Fortius cycling simulator is astonishing. You place your real bike frame in a special mount and then “ride” your bike on famous trails, through real cities, or even in the Tour de France. Unfortunately, the salesman couldn’t tell me the price. “It’s just a demonstration model, for now.” My wife is probably glad to hear that.

I absolutely love cycling in the foothills around Visalia, but cycling does include some risks. A few years ago, I managed to need surgery after a bike ride to Badger. Clearly, the I-Magic with a simulator of Sequoia or Yosemite would be great option, especially during the winter months.
Would having an I-Magic be any better than my “plain” exercise bike with its multiple training programs? Probably not, assuming I rode the same amount of miles through similar virtual terrain.

But, wouldn’t the I-Magic be motivational?

That’s the question physicians and psychologists are asking about DDR and the various Wii sports. Do these games motivate more activity than basic exercise equipment? I believe they might.

With the Wii costing less than other video game consoles, it’s no wonder my students are jumping, pitching, and swinging. I’m more impressed that their grandparents are doing the same.

One reason these games are different is that they are social. When I talk to my students, they talk about getting together to dance, bowl, golf, or play tennis with their Nintendo Wii consoles. Unlike the first-person shooter games with lots of violence and no socially redeeming qualities, the Wii is bringing real humans together.

They say it is easier to exercise with a partner, and my own experience is that activities are a lot more fun with a group. Whether it is working as a team or competing against a friend that is the attraction, the Wii brings humans together. It’s no accident the game unit’s name is pronounced “we” — Nintendo was on to something special.

I’ll admit to struggling with the Wii when I tried a version of miniature golf. Using a motion-sensitive controller to swing a club takes time to master, but even my attempts to putt were entertaining. The Wii gives you the ability to laugh at yourself. Honestly, it’s hard to look serious when you are “putting” with something that looks like a television remote.

Physical therapists are now using the Wii because of that little remote control. The device is light, almost too light. For people with serious injuries that affect range of motion, the controller is invaluable. Instead of struggling to move small weights, physical therapy patients can focus on movements. Exercises with swinging arms, rotating hands, and bending elbows must sometimes be done repeatedly during such therapies. I know, because I have had this form of boring physical therapy. I don’t think I ever did the required number of repetitions.

Now, imagine the same therapy, but with a virtual bowling ball. Not only is the patient still swinging his or her arm, the patient is enjoying it. Instead of quitting before the suggested number of repetitions, the patient might bowl for thirty minutes. This makes the Wii pretty special.

For senior citizens forming bowling leagues and holding Wii nights, there is a chance to be a kid again. I’ve watched grandparents playing with the Wii retail displays. They look around, as if trying to make sure no one sees, then they proceed to play tennis or bowl. They smile and laugh. I’ve also seen a few ask about buying a Wii “for the grandchildren.”

I will admit, I have not seen these shoppers purchase Dance Dance Revolution pads. I suspect this might be because our parents and grandparents actually knew how to dance and didn’t need lighted pads to guide them. Still, I’m sure there will be an edition for every generation.

A student has informed me that she buys every new “mix” of DDR. Apparently, you can buy everything from Disney soundtracks to disco editions of DDR. She dances in her apartment, along with a roommate, when it is too cold to jog or go to the campus gym. I asked her if she ever feels silly dancing to Disney songs as a college student.

“Feeling silly is part of the fun,” she reminded me.


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