Getting off the couch

Wii's sports games are scoring points as a way to work out


March 13, 2007
The sports games that come packaged with the Nintendo Wii video console are rather innocuous - there are no aliens to fry, no circuitous, rain-slicked racetracks to maneuver on, no virtual Shaq or Kobe to beat to the basket.

But playing the "Wii Sports" version of bowling for a half hour raises Mickey DeLorenzo's blood pressure, hikes his heart rate, and leaves him sweaty and exhausted.

It's not exactly Pong.

The $250 Wii, which arrived in stores in November, at about the same time as Sony's much-heralded PlayStation 3, came with a novel bit of technology that separated it from the rest of the pack: motion-sensitive play that requires gamers to act out their character's on-screen movements in real time, wielding the Wii's remote controller like a sword, swinging it like a tennis racket or ... well, rolling it like a bowling ball.

From the start, video-game addicts realized there were more benefits to these actions than simply making you hungry for more chips: Game play beefed up the biceps, flattened abs, improved cardio fitness. And, in some cases, doubled as a diet aid.

"I just love the idea of this, and I never really liked video games. I can't even play Super Mario," admitted Rebecca Longo, a 26-year-old intensive-care nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Cornell in Manhattan. Longo's game is kickboxing, played before a big-screen flat-panel TV in the Irving Place flat she shares with her husband, Kevin.

Why go to the gym?

"Playing kickboxing on Wii is like an aerobic workout for 15 or 20 minutes," she said. "It's so nice to do this at home, without having to go to a gym. There's a terrific potential here if they make new programs."

For DeLorenzo, 26, who lives in Philadelphia, the Wii payoff went beyond burning a few calories: He lost nine pounds in six weeks.

DeLorenzo got hold of a Wii before it was officially released, to review it for an online publication. "While I was writing, I got this idea and dubbed it the Wii Sports Experiment, and that's how it was born."

For six weeks, from December through mid-January, DeLorenzo maintained a strict program, 30 minutes a day at home with Wii and the sports games. "After 12 minutes, I was sweating, after 30 minutes I was sweating and tired," he said. He used all the games on the program - tennis, bowling ("If you play fairly quickly, step twice and roll, it's a good warmup and cooldown"), boxing and baseball - but skipped the golf.

At the end of his self-appointed time, DeLorenzo had lost poundage. "I didn't change my diet, didn't do any additional exercise and, don't forget, I had to get through the fattening holiday season, too," he said.

Of course, DeLorenzo charted his progress online (wiinintendo.net) and attracted a national following. He's since dispensed advice to dozens of people who have e-mailed him for encouragement. "I get letters from families saying they're all having Wii nights," he said. "Even my fiancee, a complete non-gamer, plays Wii Sport on a daily basis."

The buzz about Wii has created a whole culture of un-couch potatoes. In Los Angeles, parent Linda Perry has become an aggressive Wii advocate and helped attract a crowd to a "come out and play" night for Wii Sports at the posh Chateau Marmont. And more than a thousand fitness addicts have signed up for an informal Wii exercise group on a Web-based exercise site called Traineo.com, where they discuss the benefits of the game.

Dancing into our hearts

DeLorenzo says he's heard Nintendo is preparing to market a game similar to "DDR" - the high-flying Dance Dance Revolution game currently offered for Sony's PlayStation 2 - as well as a "health pack. Not many details, except that it will include yoga and Pilates." That information couldn't be confirmed by Nintendo spokesman Dan Mazie in New York, however.

Nintendo estimates it will ship 6million Wii consoles to retailers worldwide by the end of this month. Nintendo itself has low-keyed the exercise benefits of Wii, focusing instead on game-play. Meanwhile, some Wii fans have complained about soreness or stiffness caused by playing the games. (In some instances, Wii-ers bowling or smashing tennis balls have reportedly let go of the controller in a moment of passion, flinging it at the TV screen or at another "bowler.")

Concerns about repetitive stress

Some medical experts have voiced concern that the interactive physical exertion required for Wii Sports may cause repetitive stress injuries or other types of discomfort. Dr. Mark Klion, a sports physician and orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, recommends that Wii newbies start with short workouts and build up. He warns that for a person not used to physical exercise, a full-throttle Wii workout "is enough to cause injury to the soft tissues, whether it's the muscles, tendons or ligaments. I can't imagine people suffered these injuries from playing too much Pac-Man."

On the other hand, David Young, a Nintendo consumer service supervisor, told the Los Angeles Times that Wii Sports has proved a boon for people who can't exercise in conventional ways.

He cited cases of a young girl with cerebral palsy playing the games from a wheelchair, a 44-year-old man with degenerative disc problems who can bowl and golf with Wii, and a teenage boy who uses the device to rehabilitate his right arm, which was impaired by a stroke.

These five games let you hook, jab, slice . . .

Wii Sports was bundled into Nintendo's long-awaited game console system when it was launched in November, a collection of five simple-to-learn sports simulations designed to demonstrate the motion-sensing capabilities of the Wii Remote to new players.

The five games are:

Baseball - A three-inning game, where one player bats, another pitches. Batters grip and swing the controller like a bat, trying to time their swings correctly. Pitchers use the remote's buttons to choose screwball, curveball, splitter or fastball.

Boxing - The controller is used to jab and punch; moving it side to side or back and forth causes the fighter to lean, weave and duck.

Golf - The faster the swing, the longer the ball will travel. Swing too fast, and the ball will slice or hook. Putting requires a delicate touch.

Tennis - Forehands and backhands are controlled by flicking the remote. Body English can put some topspin on the ball. Takes some practice to get it right.

Bowling - The controller becomes an extension of the arm, as one swings it backward then forward to release the ball. Awkward motions can hook the ball into the gutter or even into the neighboring lane. How embarrassing.

Video on demand

Vote: Why do you use your Nintendo Wii?
Why do you use your Nintendo Wii?
To exercise. The boxing is a great workout.
To play sports and have fun with friends.
To fine tune my motor skills with the surgery game.
I don't. I'm a serious gamer and stick to PlayStation 3.
I don't. Haven't bought it yet, but I will.
Video games? Not my thing.

The Wii as work out? The Wii as work out? (AP Photo)

Excercising with Wii Excercising with Wii (Los Angeles Times Photo)

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