Fit For A Game-Loving Couch Potato

Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Wii Fit, does a yoga pose as he demonstrates the game, Thursday April 17, 2008 in New York. "Our main premise in creating Wii Fit was (to) create a game that allows you to check your weight," said Miyamoto.
AP Photo/Tina Fineberg
Thanks to Nintendo, I now know I'm a somewhat overweight couch potato with poor balance. But there is hope. If I stick with the plan, I may lose weight, get stronger and improve my balance and posture. At least that's the theory behind Nintendo's innovative Wii Fit - an $89.99 game and accessory for the Nintendo Wii designed to help people of all ages and both genders get healthier. The Wii Fit was officially launched in North America on Monday and is expected in stores on Wednesday.

In addition to the CD, Wii Fit comes with a balance board that wirelessly communicates with the required Nintendo Wii Console (the list price is $249 but shortages make it hard to find at that price).

First, you tell the Wii your age and height. Then step on the balance board, which measures 20.5 inches by 13 inches by 3 inches. It weighs you and calculates your body mass index, or BMI. A balance test follows to calculate your "Wii age." I'm too embarrassed to tell you mine but let's just say that based on my Wii age, I could be collecting Social Security years ahead of schedule.

The one thing I wish it would do is explain the meaning of BMI. While it is generally accepted as an indicator of whether someone is the right weight for his or her height, it's imperfect because it's based solely on weight and height. A BMI of 24 or higher is considered "overweight," while 30 or more marks you as "obese."

The Wii Fit screen recommends that you achieve a BMI of 22 but fails to point out that BMI doesn't distinguish body fat from muscle mass. Based on their BMIs, Barry Bonds and Arnold Schwarzenegger would be considered obese. A sedentary person with a big belly and a high BMI almost certainly does need to lose weight, but the number can sometimes be misleading if taken out of context. Having said that, I must admit that the Wii Fit was absolutely correct when it told me that I need to lose some weight.

The key to the Wii Fit is the balance board and the Nintendo controller's motion-sensing capability. In addition to weighing you, the balance board can help determine your posture and center of gravity based on the way you're standing on it.

There are numerous tests and games you can play with the Wii Fit in the categories of yoga, aerobics, strength training and balance games. The aerobics exercise that got my heart pumping the fastest was a running game. You don't use the balance board but put the regular Wii controller in your pocket. Its movement is used to calculate how quickly you're running in place. One fun aerobics game has you stepping on and off the balance board to music. It's not heart thumping but it's fun and if you do it long enough, you get a bit of a workout.

If you have a friend and another controller, you can race against a real running partner. I also enjoyed the hula hoop game, where you work up a sweat by spinning your hips to keep the hoop from falling down. The activity doesn't look or feel quite as graceful as it does at a beach party but it does get you moving. Every so often you're thrown a new hoop and have to lean way over to catch it. I'm told that if you do well enough on it you get to play the "super hula" game. But I'm not there yet. While anything that gets you burns some calories, it's hard to imagine losing weight using the Wii Fit unless one also goes on a diet. One donut will more than offset a half hour of the Wii Fit's most strenuous aerobic exercise.

For me, the balance games were the most frustrating, not because there's anything wrong with the Wii Fit but because I have a lot of work to do in that area. One game has you head-butting soccer balls that are thrown to you and another has you slalom on a ski run. In both cases, your balance and reaction time are tested and measured. What's nice about the games is the "retry" option. By repeating these games I'm finding that I'm getting a bit better and, one hopes, healthier over time.

Although the Wii isn't necessarily all that physically taxing, like any physical activity it lead to an injuries in some situations. After several days of playing the head-butting soccer ball game, I'm feeling some neck soreness. I can't necessarily blame it on the game but it's my first neck ache in many years. In theory the game shouldn't affect my neck because it involves changing your center of gravity to lean into balls. But when you see a ball coming at you - even on a screen - it's easy to make erratic movements to try to hit it. I'm not going to quit using the Wii Fit, but I am going to slow down a bit and be a bit more thoughtful about how some of unfamiliar movements might affect me.

Strength training games seem a bit weaker than other areas, partially because the device has no weights, bands or other appendages to put an extra strain on your muscles. You can, however, do crunches, squats and other exercises that help with both strength and balance. Nintendo game producer Erik Peterson told me that the Wii Fit does strength "the core muscles" of your body that affect balance and posture.

I tried the deep breathing Yoga exercise. There isn't any mechanized way to measure your breath but it does help you with your timing, which, I'm told, is very important in yoga.

Like any good game, the Wii Fit has incentives to succeed. If you do well on certain games you're rewarded not only by positive on-screen feedback but by winning access to more games. Like any good regiment it get more challenging over time.

After only four days with the device, it's hard to fully evaluate the Wii Fit bit the good news is that I am getting a little better at the balance games and, partially because of what the Wii said about my being overweight, I've also started a diet and the game has congratulated me for loosing a couple of pounds. But the real value of any exercise routine is determined not just by how fun or informative it is at the beginning but by whether you stay with it. The Wii Fit is designed to motivate you with plenty of feedback and increasing levels of difficulty. It has been fun and I find myself motivated to keep trying to improve my score. The real question, however, is whether I'll stick with it or if the Wii Fit, like so many other exercise devices and health club memberships, will go unused after a period of time.

If Nintendo could solve that problem it would go a long way toward making me - and lots of others - a bit healthier. But, alas, a device is only a device. The software we all need to keep fit doesn't run on game consoles, it runs between our ears. It's all about staying motivated and, watching what we eat and staying active.

By Larry Magid