Nintendo Wii – Is It Really Physical Activity?

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Earlier this year, Peter wrote a post about Wii-related injuries which generated some interesting discussion.  Essentially, some readers felt that we were being too hard on the Wii, with one commenter going so far as to suggest that the post was “anti-Wii” (hard to dispute, given that the post was focused on Wii-related injuries!).  Although we’ve mentioned the Wii in passing on Obesity Panacea before, we’ve never had a full discussion of the pros and cons, and I thought that this would be an excellent opportunity to do so. So – should we really consider the Nintendo Wii as a form of physical activity?

People who feel that the Wii is a good source of physical activity often point out that it raises your heart rate and/or body temperature.  I have played the Wii several times, and Peter has a Wii himself, so I don’t think either of us would try to dispute those two facts – when you play the Wii intensely, you can work up a sweat very quickly.  This is also backed up by empirical research.  For example,in a paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Graves and colleagues report that teenagers expend nearly twice as many calories when playing Wii tennis or Wii boxing as they do when sitting passively.

So we can all agree – playing the Wii is better than sitting quietly – but this is not necessarily a ringing endorsement.  Keep in mind, the same could be said about jumping jacks, running on the spot, or even walking.  In fact, in another paper in the journal Pediatrics, Graf and colleagues report that Wii boxing burns roughly the same number of calories as walking on a treadmill at a moderate pace of 5.7 kilometers (3.5 miles) per hour.  Not exactly an intense workout!  And in their paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Graves and colleagues point out that Wii bowling, Wii tennis, and Wii boxing all burn roughly half as many calories as performing those same sports in the real world. Further, the authors report that if the teenagers in this study were to replace sedentary videogames with the Wii, they would have increased their weekly physical activity by just 2%!  Certainly not a panacea for the childhood inactivity epidemic!

And this is why the Wii is such a controversial topic for those of us working in the field of physical activity.  Yes, it can get your heart pumping, but is that all that really matters?  An editorial in Pediatrics points out that only a few exergaming activities can even be considered as moderate physical activity, and no clinical trial has assessed the impact of exergaming on child health. Certainly we can come up with other creative and engaging ways of increasing physical activity (including turning off the television!) that have the potential to build a life-long love for physical activity, rather than a love for video games.

In fact, this is the real concern for many of us – we fear that exergames like the Wii are far more likely to get kids interested in video games than in physical activity.  Keep in mind that screen time in children is a strong predictor of all sorts of negative outcomes, from obesity to the metabolic syndrome.  Is it worth giving children one more reason to sit in front of a TV, just because it might involve some physical activity?

Now this post is likely to come off as very anti-Wii, but I realize that the Wii is just a tool.  In many situations – including physiotherapy, or improving balance or motor skills in the elderly or those with physical or mental disabilities – I feel that the Wii could prove to be incredibly useful.  And as one commenter pointed out Friday, the Wii can be used to get a great workout when heading to the gym is not an option.  This is very similar to the way that I use my bike trainer, and the Wii makes perfect sense to me in that context.  But as a means of increasing physical activity in inactive children, I feel that the Wii is unlikely to create any tangible benefit, and may even cause real harm by replacing more vigorous forms of physical activity.  Evidence from clinical trials could certainly make me change my tune, but I am a firm skeptic in their absence.

So that’s what I think about the Wii – what about you?  Is it worth exposing children to video games just so they can exercise at an intensity akin to walking?  Or is any increase in physical activity an important increase?  Should we place Wii’s in our schools and rec centers to attract inactive children, or should we stick with more traditional forms of physical activity (which may or may not engage the most at-risk kids)?  It’s a complicated issue, and one that I know is being dealt with by many schools and recreation organizations.  This is going to be an increasingly important issue in the coming years, and I would love to hear what you think!

Travis Saunders

Graves, L., Stratton, G., Ridgers, N., & Cable, N. (2007). Comparison of energy expenditure in adolescents when playing new generation and sedentary computer games: cross sectional study BMJ, 335 (7633), 1282-1284 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.39415.632951.80

Daley, A. (2009). Can Exergaming Contribute to Improving Physical Activity Levels and Health Outcomes in Children? PEDIATRICS, 124 (2), 763-771 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2008-2357

This post originally appeared on Obesitypanacea.com on February 8, 2010.

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