Exer-games better than thumb games

Sometimes it’s hard having a fitness fanatic for a mom. Our cupboards are bare of cookies, we park in the spot farthest from the front door of the shopping mall, and there are no video games in our household.But the latest in gaming has me rethinking point No. 3.The newest generation of video games is about to get kids -and their parents -off the couch in a way that older games have not come close to.The first notable difference in the new games, which debuted this month, is the hands-free play.They offer what’s called “full-body gaming,” so if you want something to happen, you need to do more than flick your wrist or give your thumbs a workout.One such game has been created by Ubisoft here in Montreal, called Your Shape Fitness Evolved.It uses new Microsoft technology to take your physical measurements (height, arm and leg length) and creates a digital image of your body, which it then places in the game.The silhouette, which looks just like you down to the clothes you’re wearing, reflects your movements on screen. And that’s just the beginning of what is truly a meet-the-Jetsons experience.Using arm gestures instead of buttons to scroll through the menu items that pop up on the television screen, players can choose from a variety of fitness options, including working with a personal trainer, taking any one of several fitness classes or playing fitness-related games.Ubisoft gave me a chance to try a few of its new fitness games recently. I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect to be wowed.Video games have a reputation for contributing to what researchers call an obesogenic environment — and rightfully so.The first wave of video games in the late 1970s, followed by Nintendo’s Game Boy a decade later, changed the play habits of our children -the result of which is being felt now.Obesity rates among Canadian children have tripled in the last 25 years, and research suggests there is almost a two-fold increased risk of obesity for every hour spent playing video games. The more video games are played, the less physical activity is done.And it turns out that playing video games is not good for the diet. Researcher Jean-Philippe Chaput has found that kids who sit on the couch and play video games consume more calories than kids who are sedentary but don’t play video games. Chaput is a junior research chair in the Active Living and Obesity Research department at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.So prevalent are video games that half of 2,002 U.S. children surveyed in 2008 said they have game controllers in their bedrooms.Which gives some clue as to how U.S. sales of video-game products reached 9.66 billion in 2009.To their credit, video-game manufacturers have responded to criticism by turning sedentary screen time into active screen time. Nintendo’s Wii, which debuted in the fall of 2006, and Wii Fit, which followed a year later, were the first to encourage gamers to get moving.Suddenly, video games were more than just fun. They were exercise.But are they?Initial studies of exer-games indicate that while they burn more calories than sedentary games, they fall short of the intensity that would qualify them as exercise.And in those cases where the video games try to mimic traditional exercise options like step aerobics or running, researchers discovered that performing the actual activity burns significantly more calories than the virtual one.”The Wii Fit is a very, very, mild workout,” said John Porcari, lead researcher of a Wii study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise.But it hasn’t been all bad news for the gaming industry.Porcari also studied Wii Sports and concluded that exer-games like tennis, boxing, golf and bowling have the potential to offer fitness benefits.”You’re better off doing Wii Sports than Wii Fit,” he said.”In Wii Sports, there’s more jumping around, and you’re not constrained by having to stand on the balance pad. I just think there’s much more freedom of movement and you get a better workout.”Fast forward to 2010, and lifestyle researchers like Porcari and Chaput have a whole new line of exer-games to test in the lab, all of which combine fun and fitness as never before.Montreal yoga instructor Amanda Star did her own screening of the Your Shape Fitness Evolved in Montreal’s Ubisoft offices, where the game took a team of 80 developers, including certified fitness consultants, three years to develop.Set up to resemble a fitness video, instructional classes include a “Zen” workout that combines tai chi and yoga moves into a moderately paced workout.The session is led by an avatar who talks and moves like a fitness instructor, right down to providing real-time feedback on your technique.”It’s incredible,” said Star, who became instantly involved in the game. Not only was she fascinated by seeing her own image on the screen, she listened intently to the feedback on her technique.The source of all this technology is a small black box equipped with three cameras and four microphones that sits just below your TV screen. Called Kinect and built to accompany the Xbox 360, it uses depth and motion sensors to track your entire body in 3D.Star is cued to lower her arms and bend her knees a little more. When she does, the game rewards her with a perfect score, all the while keeping the workout flowing. Star continues the workout and gets a few more less-than-perfect scores, which makes her determined to have another go at the game.So sophisticated is the game, it remembers who you are and keeps track of your progress. There’s also a voice-recognition feature that further identifies individual gamers. And like any good instructor, the avatar reduces the number of cues as you master the workout.If Zen isn’t your thing, there’s cardio boxing, aerobics and weight-training classes to enjoy. There are also a few fun games that use physical challenges to score points. Worth noting, however, is that all games are performed from a standing position because the cameras can’t track movements on the floor.Similar to Kinect, but not quite as technologically advanced, is Nintendo’s PlayStation Move. It isn’t controller-free, but it, too, can track a gamer’s position with the help of the PlayStation Eye. Both game systems allow for multiple players, which adds a social component to gaming as well as a little friendly competition.It’s too soon to gauge the fitness value of this new generation of video games, but obesity researchers like Chaput and McGill University’s Ross Andersen are happy to see the pendulum swinging toward more physical activity.”I see tremendous potential in this technology,” Andersen said.Chaput notes that unlike the Wii Sports games, which demand mostly upper body movements, the new hands-free technology allows more lower body movements, which boosts energy expenditure. And with no controller needed to track movement, gamers no longer bypass the physical component of the game by simply flicking the wrist of the hand holding the controller. The games force even the laziest of gamers off the couch.Still, Chaput isn’t 100 per cent sold on exer-gaming for kids.”Children need to get outside,” he said. “There are all sorts of studies that point to the physical and mental benefits of spending time outdoors.”That said, he realizes that where video games are concerned, the genie is out of the bottle, so he appreciates their evolution from a totally sedentary activity to one that promotes exercise.Andersen said he thinks even seniors can benefit from the new technology. The ability to work out in the safety of their home with the help of a game that is not only fun, but provides feedback on their progress could be beneficial for a population that struggles to get to a gym -especially during the winter.But both lifestyle experts warn that exer-gaming isn’t a substitute for old-fashioned physical activity like a game of road hockey or a workout at the gym.’I don’t think that people will get leaner playing these games,” Chaput said.Maybe not, but they can sure have fun trying.Several options to work out with video exer-games:Kinetic for the XBox 360 retails at 49.99. Bundled with the Xbox 360, it retails from $299.99 (4GB) to $399.99 (250 GB).Kinetic exer-gaming software includes: Your Shape Fitness Evolved $49.99 Zumba Fitness $49.99Kinect Motion Sports $49.99Dance Central $49.99EA Sports Active 2 $99.99 Playstation 3 (320 GB) Move Hardware Bundle retails at $399.99. The software bundle that includes the Sports Champions suite of exer-games retails for $99.99.

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