Fitness Video Games Compare Well with Traditional Exercise

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“A critical weekly review of important new research findings for health-conscious readers”


Although I was initially opposed to the idea, my wife recently decided to buy a Nintendo Wii game system for our 9 year-old daughter and 6 year-old son.  Like many school-age children, our two kids already seem to have more sports classes, academic classes outside of school, and play dates than they have time to attend.  (Oh, and let’s not forget about the daily deluge of homework that they bring home each evening from school!)  Having been overruled by my wife, however, I resigned myself to yet another distraction (centered around the television) for our children to deal with each day.

Soon after setting up the Wii gaming system in our home, our two children were happily immersed in playing various fantasy games with each other, leaping around our living room while clutching the wireless remotes, screaming and laughing the whole time.  Every now and then, despite my feigned lack of interest in their new gaming toy, I would also find myself drawn into a vigorous game of Wii bowling or Wii table tennis.  While playing these and other Wii games with our hyperkinetic 9 year-old daughter, I actually found myself working up a bit of a sweat in the process!  Soon thereafter, we purchased some additional “Wii Fitness” games, as well, including a “step pad” that allows players to perform stepping exercises with a group of imaginary fellow steppers.  And so I watched, with some amusement, as our rambunctious 9 year-old daughter briskly hopped up and down from the step pad along with her imaginary stepping friends, clapping her hands and flailing her arms about in the process.

While I still have some reservation about having a video gaming system in our home, I was impressed that our exercise-adverse kids had found an entertaining way to burn off some extra calories using Wii fitness games.  This week’s health research review column is, therefore, focused on the potential health benefits that may be associated with fitness-related video games (“exergames”), including the Nintendo Wii system that we have in our living room.

A newly published clinical research study, which appears in the current issue of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, sought to actually measure the amount of calories burned while playing video-based “exergames.”  In this study, 39 boys and girls (average age was 12 years) were asked to participate in several different fitness-related video games.  These games included Dance Dance Revolution, Light Space Bug Invasion, Nintendo Wii Boxing, Cybex Trazer Goalie Wars, Sportwall, and Xavix J-Mat.  These children were also asked to walk on a treadmill set at a 3 mile-per-hour (mph) pace.  Using standardized metabolic measuring equipment, the energy expenditure associated with these physical activities was measured in “metabolic equivalent task values” (or “mets”).

At a time when obesity is rampant among both adults and children, the findings of this new study have further decreased my reservations regarding the Nintendo Wii gaming system that now resides in our living room.  First of all, the six different measured activities all significantly raised these children’s energy expenditures above resting levels.  Walking at a moderately brisk 3 mph on a treadmill resulted in an average energy expenditure of 4.9 mets.  In comparison, while playing Wii Boxing, these kids reached an average of 4.2 mets.  The energy expenditure of the remaining four “exergames” was even more impressive:  5.4 mets for Dance Dance Revolution, 5.9 mets for Cybex Trazer Goalie Wars, 6.4 mets for Light Space Bug Invasion, 7.0 mets for Xavix J-Mat, and 7.1 mets for Sportwall.

The findings of this study are very impressive.  Just to place the measured energy expenditures noted with the six activities assessed in this clinical research study into perspective, moderate physical activity, which includes activities such as walking at a brisk pace, swimming, and moderate-paced bicycle riding is associated with an average energy expenditure of 3 to 6 mets.  Vigorous physical activity, which includes such activities as jogging, mountain climbing, singles tennis, or riding a bicycle uphill, involves an energy expenditure of more than 6 mets.  All five of these “exergames” were associated with an energy expenditure level of at least “moderate physical activity,” while three of these gaming systems were actually associated with “vigorous physical activity” levels more commonly associated with intense levels of aerobic exercise.

As we struggle with the rising incidence of obesity among an increasingly sedentary generation of boys and girls in the United States, and in many other countries around the world, the use of “exergames,” such as those that were evaluated in this clinical research study, may offer our children an opportunity to combine the video gaming that so many of them love to play with levels of exercise that were formerly associated with the high-intensity sports that are, increasingly, being eliminated from school-based and after-school physical fitness programs.  The findings of this important study strongly suggest that it is possible to combine video-gaming with significant levels of exercise, and in a format that many children will find entertaining and fun to engage in.  So, in the end, my wife’s decision to purchase the Nintendo Wii system may not have been such a bad idea after all….


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Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity

Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author

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