Racheal St John, 13, knows how to bust a move, thanks to the video game "Dance Dance Revolution." She plays at least twice a day – at home in front of her TV and also at the local YMCA teen center.
At the slow speed, St John keeps pace with the dance moves on the monitor. But when teen center coordinator Damien Hunt ratchets up the tempo, the seventh-grader from Fishers, Ind., Struggles to keep up. "That's impossible," she squeals, as the lights and arrows directing her feet flash faster and faster. "Nobody can do that!"
This session of "Dance Dance Revolution" – DDR to gamers and insiders – ends in a cascade of giggles. It's only afterwards that St John realizes she got a workout. "It really gets my heart pumping," she says. "It makes me feel like I'm running."
St John and the throngs of tweens and teens hooked on video games may not know it, but they're the target audience for one of the hottest trends in fitness right now: exergaming. Fueled by the popularity of home video games like DDR and Nintendo "Wii Sports," youth centers, schools and gyms in increasing numbers are setting out space for exergames and video fitness machines as a way to engage kids in exercise, and at the same time , Combat rising childhood obesity rates.
The games also have crossover appeal, finding their way into senior centers and nursing homes, where they're used for recreation and physical therapy.
Exergames, also known as active gaming, combine video technology with motion sensors, so players are able to move around and interact with the screen. Don a pair of XaviX boxing gloves and up pops a virtual boxing ring, complete with a menacing opponent. Hop on a GameBike and you could find yourself sweating your way to the finish line in a make-believe motocross race.
"You get people wrapped up in a virtual activity, and they do not know they're exercising," says John Porcari, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor, who analyzed the calorie-burning potential of exergames for the American Council on Exercise, which lists exergaming as one of 2009's top fitness trend
Porcari's research shows games like "Wii Sports" provide fitness benefits – increased heart rate, oxygen uptake and calorie burn – but only when players mimic the actual movements of the sports. Flicking a wrist in a game of Wii tennis does not burn many calories. Enthusiastically pretending to return volleys for a half hour does – about 159, roughly the same as a 10-minute bike ride at a 15 mph pace.
Health care and fitness experts agree that eating less and exercising more is key to reversing the spike in childhood obesity. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, the prevalence of obesity among children ages 6 to 11 more than doubled between 1980 and 2006, from 6.5 percent to 17 percent. For kids 12 to 19, the rate tripled – from 5 percent to 17.6 percent.
The statistics are just as alarming for preschoolers: A study published in April in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine revealed that nearly one in five 4-year-olds in America meets the CDC's definition of obesity.
"It's among the greatest health care challenges facing our youth today," says Dr. Sandeep Gupta, who treats children as director of the Pediatric OverWeight Education and Research program, or POWER clinic, at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
Gupta says he sees children with what were typically viewed as adult conditions: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, fatty livers, sleep apnea and joint problems. He encourages these patients to use exergames as a fitness tool: "It's nice if they can move and enjoy it at the same time."
"It attacks the one problem we have the most difficulty overturning, which is sedentary behavior," says Dr. Robert Murray, director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "Anything that makes them more active is a beneficial thing."
Murray cautions, however, that the games should not supplant other physical activity and that kids should be encouraged to engage in a range of exercise. "Kids need to have time away from screens," he adds, citing the American Academy of Pediatrics campaign to foster more outside play.
Cedric Bryant, chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise , agreements. "While interactive games have managed to get traditional gamers off the couch, there's no substitute for the real sport," he says.
For some kids, though, exergames may be the only physical activity they're willing to tackle, says Ernie Medina, a preventive care specialist with the Beaver Medical Group in Redlands, Calif., And founder of XRtainment Zone, a 1,400-square- Foot exergaming gym housed at the fitness and recreation center at Loma Linda University.
Not just for kids
Are you ever too old to Wii it up? Appropriately not. Exergames are turning up in senior centers and nursing homes as part of therapy and planned social activities, like Wii bowling leagues.
"More seniors are using it, not only for the social benefits, but also for the physical and cognitive benefits," says California XR Entertainment Zone's Ernie Medina. For older adults, Wii bowling, tennis and the like may be better than the actual sport. The games help players improve their balance and coordination but do not put as much stress on joints.
"It's very low impact," says Columbus, Ohio, resident Andrew Brangenberg, 65, who plays the games at the Gillie Senior Center, where he volunteers. "The boxing is very good exercise – talk about a cardio workout."
"In my work with overweight kids, they tend not to like physical activity, not only because they have to work harder due to their excess weight, but they're also picked for sports or teased," Medina says. "But they love video games and are usually very good at them, which makes their self-esteem higher."
While fitness fads come and go, exergaming is showing staying power, as well as finding support across the medical community. Last year, insurer Humana announced a health games initiative that includes working with schools in Kentucky and Florida. Others, like Community Health Network, which operates several hospitals near Indianapolis, have helped pay for video fitness arcades in the area.
"We see [electronic] health games changing behaviors – basically the way families learn and engage in physical activity to improve their health," says Grant Harrison, vice president of Humana's Integrated Consumer Experience.
While the top spots to find exergames are youth centers and schools, they're also growing increasingly popular in independent adult gyms, say industry insiders Mike Hansen with iTech Fitness in Colorado and Tommy Seilheimer with Exergame Fitness USA in Illinois, which companies manufacture and distribute Commercial-grade video fitness machines. Both say it's only a matter of time before the fitness center chains jump on the trend.
Already, some adult gyms are mixing in high-tech exerbikes. The new breed of stationary bikes have video monitors and Internet access, allowing users to compete with riders anywhere in the world.
Getting youngsters to break a sweat was one of the goals at the exclusive Briar Club in Houston, which added a 1,100-square-foot exergaming room to the country club's fitness facility in June. Rich Andrae, wellness and recreation director, said the club was targeting 7- to 12-year-olds when it bought the equipment, but also plans to introduce additional programming for adults and seniors. In the first month, the room far exceeded expected interest, attracting 800 visitors.
"We're concerned about childhood obesity," Andrae says. "We wanted to engage the young members of our club, and also try to get parents and children involved in activities together."
It was the exergames that led Erin Tierney and Rick Kohut to join Circuit Wellness, a fitness center in Columbus, Ohio, where 40 percent of the facility's 2,000 square feet is allocated to active gaming. They say the concept is a "good fit" for their family, especially son Toby, 8, who is more sedentary than sister Caitlin, 5, described by her mother as a "little energy ball."
While his parents work out, Toby pedals away on an exerbike, enjoying the thrills a motorcyclist might, only through a video screen. "You get to race, and there are all these jumps," says the enthusiast third-grader.
Tierney hopes it will have a lasting effect. "You want to train kids that physical exercise makes them feel better," Tierney says. "He's learning it has many positive impacts on his life.