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Video Game Fitness

Until recently, video games were the enemy of physical fitness. They encouraged you to park your derriere in a chair for hours. But surprisingly, video games have been turned into the new “it” workout, getting people off the couch and on the path to better health.

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In 2006, Nintendo released its Wii system, including Wii Sports games-boxing, baseball, bowling, golf and tennis. Suddenly, instead of sitting passively in front of a TV screen, video game players were moving as if playing the real game-swinging a tennis racket or a bat, for example. The player’s movements as they hold the Wii remote and Nanchuk (controller attachment) direct the character’s movements on the TV screen.

The sports games caught on like wildfire in homes around the world and then began to migrate to fitness facilities in the United States and Canada. At Studeo 55 in Vancouver, business executives use Nintendo Wii to box virtually with their personal trainers in a 600-square-foot theatre room equipped with a 10-foot screen and a Wii system. While bobbing and weaving, the guys jab and throw uppercuts, and the game can get pretty intense. “The business execs really want to beat their trainers,” reports Nathan Mellalieu, owner of Studeo 55.

Studeo 55 members use the Wii mostly as a warm-up or cool-down exercise or as part of sequence training for five or 10 minutes. It’s not an enormous calorie burner-between 250 and 350 calories per hour, according to Mellalieu-so it’s more for fun. “One of our concepts is trying to create executive recess,” says Mellalieu.

Kids, Too

Meanwhile, Holly Bond and her husband, of Dartmouth, N.S., were inspired to start Bulldog Interactive Fitness by their son, who was overweight and “a casualty of the Xbox generation.” To encourage him to exercise, the Bonds bought exercise equipment for the basement. That helped somewhat, but when they remembered a friend who had duct-taped his Xbox controller to his elliptical trainer, they had a better idea. Combining video games with exercise might just entice kids to get moving. They did just that, eventually opening Bulldog Interactive Fitness in 2005.

Now with nine locations across the country, Bulldog offers kids a virtual playground where technology makes exercise fun. Stationary bikes are connected to PlayStation2 systems, which turn the bikes into virtual cars. You peddle to activate the car and steer with the handlebars. Kids race against each other or the computer. The rowing machines are connected to a personal computer, which plunges kids into a game where they have to try to escape killer fish. “It’s amazing how much harder you will row when there’s a fish trying to gobble you up,” Bond says.

But the fastest growing trend is the Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), which can be played through PlayStation Xbox or Wii. You stand on a dance pad (that looks like a tic-tac-toe board) and watch a screen where a character dances to music. Up, down, right and left arrows on-screen light up to instruct you where to move your feet to do the dance. “It’s basically the reason our son lost 23 pounds,” Bond says.

The videogame concept has proven a hit with kids, even those who aren’t jocks, says Bond. This is encouraging because 26% of children between the ages of six and 11 are overweight, according to a 2004 Statistics Canada survey-a figure that has more than doubled since 1977.

Many adults would love to join Bulldog, but right now it’s only for kids and teens, except on family day, when moms and dads can join in.

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Wii Fit

Because of the increased popularity of video game fitness, Nintendo has been developing a new system called Wii Fit, which will be available in Canada on May 21.

Wii Fit comes with software and the Wii Balance Board, which senses weight distribution and shift in balance in any direction. You control your character’s action on the television screen with your movements on the balance board.

To begin, you create a character in Wii Fit; after entering your height and birth date, you stand on the board and it calculates your weight, centre of gravity, and body mass index. Once you’re given the grizzly truth, you can move on to setting goals (such as how much weight you want to lose) and testing your balance. Later, you can return to your profile to track your progress and access new exercises. The system allows up to eight people to track their progress.

Having completed your profile, you can then select from more than 40 activities and exercises from four main categories: strength training, aerobics, yoga and balance games. There’s plenty of variety: everything from Hula Hoop exercises to yoga poses to a ski slalom challenge to rhythm boxing. With some exercises, such as the yoga poses, you’re following the verbal instructions of an on-screen personal trainer.

Some fitness clubs, such as Studeo 55, will add the Wii Fit system to their gyms, but even individuals who aren’t gym bunnies will likely be inspired to use it in the privacy of their own living room.