Nintendo Wii Fit Has Little Impact on Fitness

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One of the hottest Christmas gifts—and after-Christmas gifts—is the Nintendo Wii Fit video game, which is advertised as helping families get more physically fit and active. Yet a new study finds that Wii Fit has little impact on fitness.

The study was conducted by Scott Owens, an associate professor of health and exercise science at the University of Mississippi. Given the epidemic of overweight and obesity in the United States, Owens wanted to determine whether a popular video game could truly help increase the amount of physical activity in which a family would participate. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately one-third of American adults are overweight and another one-third are obese.

Eight families were given a Nintendo Wii Fit video game to use during the six-month study. Owens monitored each family’s physical activity level for three months without use of the Nintendo Wii and then for three months while they used the video game. The family members were evaluated on various measurements, including aerobic fitness, body composition, and balance. Software on the Nintendo consoles used individual profiles to monitor each family member’s use of the game and how much they moved each time they played the game.

Owens found that the children showed significant increases in aerobic fitness after three months of using the Wii Fit. However, three months of using the game did not result in any significant changes in daily physical activity, flexibility, balance, muscular fitness, or body composition for the families as a whole.

The families also rapidly lost interest in using the video game. Daily use per family declined by 82 percent, from 22 minutes per day during the first six weeks to four minutes per day during the second six weeks. This decline in use led Owens to conclude that the Nintendo Wii Fit had little effect on daily fitness.

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This was not the first study to look at the effect of the Nintendo Wii Fit game. In October 2008, Kansas State University professor and head of the department of kinesiology David Dzewaltowski published a commentary in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews in which he noted that “Anything that gets people to move more than they have in the past is positive, but if people are trying to replace physical activity that demands more movement with Wii, then that will be negative.” He commented that it is difficult to replicate the intensity of real-life physical movement in a small indoor environment, although dance video games can be effective at demanding movements that require calories to be burned.

Dzewaltowski noted that Wii Fit measures an individual’s body mass index (BMI), which can be helpful for adults but not for children. He found that the “Wii BMI calculator showed that it was inappropriate for children and would categorize children incorrectly.” The video game also gives players a Wii Fit Age, which is measured using the player’s BMI and their center of gravity and balance testing. Dzewaltowski believes the measurement is not credible, and that it more important for people to focus on physical activity and their consumption of fruits and vegetables than the game’s BMI and fitness age measurements.

Another study, the results of which were presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions in November 2009, reported that games such as Wii Fit may increase adults’ energy expenditure as much as moderately intense exercise. This study was funded by Nintendo. The study’s authors noted that 33 percent of the game’s virtual physical activities require players to expend 3.0 METs (metabolic equivalent values) or greater, which is considered moderate intensity exercise. METs are a standard method of estimating energy expenditure.

Motohiko Miyachi, PhD, the study’s lead author, reported that “The range of energy expenditure in these active games is sufficient to prevent or to improve obesity and lifestyle-related disease.” The Nintendo Wii Fit includes yoga, resistance and strength training, balance and aerobic exercises with more than 40 different activities. The most effective exercise is the single-arm stand, 5.6 METs, while yoga and balance exercises have significantly lower MET values.

The “secret” to the ability of Nintendo’s Wii Fit or similar video games to help improve fitness and/or for people to lose weight is whether they use the game regularly and for a sufficient amount of time. The University of Mississippi study found that participants rapidly decreased their use of Wii Fit from 22 minutes to 4 minutes of activity, not nearly enough physical activity. According to the American Heart Association’s exercise guidelines, adults gain the most health benefits when they engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week.

SOURCES:
American Heart Association
Dzewaltowski DA. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews 2008 Oct; 36(4): 171-72
Miyachi M et al. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2009 Dec 9
National Institutes of Health
University of Mississippi news release, Dec. 16, 2009

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