Nintendo Wii – Is It Really Physical Activity?

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 on February 8, 2010.

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13 Responses to Nintendo Wii – Is It Really Physical Activity?

  1. BikeMonkey says:

    Out here in real parent land, we understand that the Wii is not being used as a substitute for physical activity but rather as a substitute for videogame and/or TV watching time.

    we fear that exergames like the Wii are far more likely to get kids interested in video games than in physical activity.

    HAHAA! Dude, do you know any real kids? They are already interested in video games and exposed plenty by the time they get to school, even if parents toe the no-videogame line at home. That horse done left the barn. This is about making the parental choice to select ‘Wii’ when you have already caved and decided to buy a gaming system. This has nothing to do with “gee, guess we don’t have to sign up for soccer league anymore because we have a Wii, woohoo!”. That’s a strawman.

    • KarlosII says:

      I agree. And the way my son plays the wii, it certainly could be considered exercise. And yrs, I understand the word exercise. He also plays football, swims, plays cricket and soon rugby. Oh, and he’s 5.

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  3. Smeddley says:

    I agree with everything BikeMonkey says above – you seem to think that if the kids aren’t playing Wii, they’d be outside. So you’re looking at a ‘running around outside’ vs. ‘playing Wii’ scenario, which just isn’t the case. Playing a videogame on a beautiful day when they could be outside isn’t a choice most kids are going to make. But there are qualifiers there – ‘beautiful day’ and ‘could be outside’. So, is it better for a kid to watch TV or play Wii? That’s the real question.

    Also, you focus a LOT on kids. 90% of the people I know who bought a Wii with the idea of it being ‘exercise’ are adults, and older adults at that. Maybe they can’t get out to a gym, or can’t afford it. Which is better for you – Wii bowling every night in your living room, or real bowling once a month? Sure, the Wii is expensive (ish), but most of those ‘real’ activities are far, far, far more costly (seriously, have you priced bowling lately?!).

    I don’t know anyone (even lazy old me) who would pick the Wii over a real activity – if it is feasible (weather, equipment, etc) and if it is affordable. But those are two huge ifs.

  4. The Wii is, as you say, just a tool. It’s a tool that has some elements not present in outdoor games – it can be varied, there is lots of choice, it has the ‘wow’ factor, and it can be played indoors when the weather is not so good.
    I’ve been using Wii for people with chronic pain for the past 18 months. It has been an outstanding success for these people because it offers an accessible way for them to have fun while they exercise. That ‘fun’ element can also be a problem – many people with chronic pain are so drawn in by the motivational aspects of having scores, of competition, of adding up the minutes of exercise they’ve carried out – that they forget to be mindful of their activity level and over-do it.
    Wii doesn’t seem to appeal to the hard-core gamers, but instead, to the younger children and to older adults both of whom don’t care for the guns and blood of many games. I can’t see it taking over from other forms of either indoor or outdoor activity, but I can see it being a useful adjunct for people who want to have some fun, and for therapists like me who want to introduce people to gentle exercise with some effective reinforcement from the scores and competition.

  5. gregdowney says:

    Some of the comments seem unnecessarily prickly to me, but just about any post that seems to be suggesting that someone or else’s parenting involves a compromise, even if the post describes it as reasonable, is liable to provoke a firestorm, as I’ve found writing on my own site.

    I don’t have young children, and I’ve got no real time-use surveys to do a good analysis, but I think the fear about the Wii being perceived as more strenuous exercise than it actually is, is well founded. Travis is pointing out a subtle issue, much subtler than saying that ‘Wii is BAD.’ And the Wii is not the only activity where the perception of exertion is out of line with the actual exercise being done or the physical benefits to be gained.

    For example, when I was home in July, I watched my nephews playing with the Wii (the controller was quickly taken from me when they realized just HOW hapless I was — not even interesting to flog me at the thing). The youngest looked extraordinarily flushed, sweaty and worked up by the time he finished playing for about 40 minutes; I thought the kid was going to keel over from the excitement!

    But the exertion was entirely upper body and the controller offers virtually no resistance; to put it kindly, they were just waving their arms around, adding their own sound effects to the noise the machine was generating, and working their fingers away. My brother and sister-in-law are way too smart to think that this is serious exercise, and the kids have limits on how much they can play, but with virtually no large muscle involvement that I could see, no cardio-vascular workout except for being extremely excited, and no weighted resistance, it’s hard to think that they were exerted themselves more than they would be from walking, as the research suggests.

    And yet, they sure didn’t LOOK like they had been walking. They probably looked like they had been more active than they would have after a soccer game (of course, with very young soccer, that might actually be the case).

    So, sure, if you’re a well educated parent, realizing that Wii isn’t equivalent to real exercise — great — you don’t need Travis to tell you this. But increasingly, the unit is being marketed and talked about like a virtual substitute for sport, and sales of the unit are so strong that it’s not unreasonable to suspect that people are believing this.

    And before everyone starts piling on me for being anti-Wii, if I weren’t so hapless at the thing, I’d probably want one, too. And I can understand completely how the unit might be used for physiotherapy in remarkable ways; I’m still trying to think of ways that I can kludge the thing into a tool for my rugby research!

    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      Nice to see some inspired discussion!

      I was about to write a long response but see that Greg has done a far more eloquent job than I could have!

      While it seems obvious that the Wii can’t replace other forms of physical activity, it is surprising how often I have heard parents and teachers say that kids don’t need traditional forms of physical activity if they are using the Wii. That, in combination with the fact that the Wii is increasingly being marketed as an exercise tool for adults and children alike, makes me think that some people really do believe that the Wii can be a substitute for other forms of physical activity. So while I am hopeful that most parents realize that is not the case, I think it’s still a point worth bringing up.

      @ Smeddley,

      As I mentioned in the post, and as Bronnie mentioned in her comment, I think the Wii can be a very valuable tool in specific situations – rehab, chronic pain, working with the elderly or those with compromised motor skills, etc. As Greg points out, I’m not arguing that the Wii is a nefarious device – it’s simply a tool with some pros and cons.


  6. I think some parents are taking exception to Travis informing them of a straight fact: Wii-ing isn’t as useful as real exercise.
    Now ‘real’ parents can bang on about ‘real parenting’ all you like but id doesn’t mean that your kid is getting useful exercise from a Wii.
    Before I get trolled let me get one thing straight – I’m an imperfect parent. IMHO they’ve yet to make a perfect person or a perfect parent… but, it annoys me when parents attack the bearers of bad news – news that they already know.
    America and the UK both have a big problem with big kids – so stop your whining and take your kids out for a walk rather than deluding yourself that you’re not part of the problem.

  7. Carrie says:

    I do have a Wii and yes, I do use it to enhance my physical activity. Mostly I do it on days when the weather is nasty (90+ or under 35F, rain/snow, etc) and I can’t ride my bike. I could get a gym membership, true, but I have a history of an eating disorder and exercise addiction, so me and machines don’t mix.

    I have one dance game that has me sweating buckets, and I would guess it’s pretty similar in effect to “actual” dancing (you don’t want to see me dance. Trust me!). I enjoy the other games, too, but if I had to rely on that as my main form of activity, I would get bored, fast.

    I think the easiest way to encourage physical activity in kids–and I say this as a person who was pretty inactive as a kid, started to exercise normally in college, and then went completely overboard and ran 4+ hours a day on basically no food–is to make it fun. It’s what I’m focusing on in recovery. It’s hard to get compulsive about something you do for fun, and it’s easier to stick with it. So if you like your Wii, use your Wii. It’s not a reason not to try and encourage other activities in you and/or your kids, but it might be a neat tool to let people try new sports and activities without much commitment and public humiliation.


  8. James says:

    First of all, if you want “exergaming” to work then you should be using a Wii-Fit or other device that requires you to use your legs as well as your arms. Just swinging your arms around may not be exercise, but using your legs you are doing the equivalent of running in place, which is pretty similar to light jogging.

    What really concerns me about this post, however, is the tone, not the content. There is definitely a tone of “we all know that video games are bad for us and bad for our children” running through it. I have to agree with BikeMonkey, saying that these games risk getting children interested in video games is completely out of touch with reality. There are lots of video games in the world, and kids are going to be interested in them because they are very interesting. Where is the post saying that reading is correlated with out-of-shape kids? What about a family board game night?

    Furthermore, screen time may be a predictor of certain problems, but that is very different than thinking that screen time causes those problems. We know from reputable studies that the number of books in the home is a good predictor of school performance. Does that mean that parents who have no interest in reading, in reading to their children or in exposing their children to books can improve school performance dramatically by just buying a bunch of books and sticking them in a room no one goes in? A statistical proxy is not a real life cause.

    Perhaps the most revealing statement is that, “the Wii is just a tool.” It’s actually not a tool. I don’t think of children as things that I need tools to mold or modify. I think of them as people, and I know from experience that many people of all ages have fun playing the Wii. This idea that there is some “risk” associated with “exposing” them to the Wii is just completely outlandish.

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  10. Anna says:

    For me, the Wii (I have the Wii Fit Plus set up) has been the only successful transition tool for me from an extremely sedentary lifestyle to a more active one.
    The gaming aspect of it provided enough motivation for me to keep standing up and playing another game. The added energy I felt after a couple of weeks of playing games every day was enough for me to be able to stand up and walk the dog. And I was able to build from there – these days I am able to put in half an hour on my elliptical six days a week , and do weight lifting three times a week.

    I can’t speak to it as a ” real exercise” tool, but I found it to be exactly what I, as a morbidly obese person, needed to start becoming more active in a way that I could enjoy and feel successful at.