A Wii bit of exercise

Posted on 19 Feb 2009 at 10:05am
By Steven Lindsey

Can Nintendo revolutionize the way we get fit?


In the good old days of Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris and Missile Command, video games were all about sitting in front of the TV for hours, mind turning to mush while munching on Steak-Umms and drinking Clearly Canadian. If I wanted exercise, I hopped on my rowing machine or pulled the dirty laundry off the Bow-Flex and went to town.

Now, with the introduction of Wii Fit for the Nintendo Wii gaming system, Americans seem eager to use virtual-world exercise to eliminate their real-world muffin tops. But can the high-energy videogame really provide a decent workout and motivate people to exercise more?

Sales figures would answer that question with a resounding "Yes, Wii Can!" In January, Wii Fit was the top-selling videogame, with 777,000 copies sold in the U.S. alone.

Was it the guilt of failed New Year’s resolutions or a cultural phenomenon that could finally slim down our double-cheese-and-bacon culture? The only way to attempt to solve the mystery was to check it out for myself.

Admittedly, I went into this experiment as a skeptic. It’s one thing to play videogames to escape to distant worlds, fight zombies or steal cars while running from the po-po; it’s another to accomplish something in the real world. What possible purpose could there be for doing something that I could just as easily accomplish without the need for a TV, balance board and high-tech joystick?
Perhaps there’s a viable niche market for those of us who like the idea of yoga but prefer not to have a stranger touch our feet and tell us we need a pedicure before the next class.

But enough speculation. It was finally time to put technology to work for me, even if I’m the one doing all the work.

After taking a large swig of Slim Fast, two aspirin for my achy back, and a lint roller to my leg warmers, I was ready to take the Wii Fit challenge. An hour later, after I figured out how to hook up the damned thing, I was really ready.
As the friendly (and slightly creepy) computerized voice walked me through the setup, it was time to take my fitness stats. For the record, I work out at least six times per week, so I felt pretty confident that I was going to achieve the Wii Fit equivalent of my three initials atop the high score list on Q*bert.

First, it weighed me in. The multi-function balance board that comes with the software mimicked the exact results of my bathroom scale. Impressive!
After entering my age and height, it calculated my body mass index. Again, the results matched what I’d been told at my last stat-check with a personal trainer. Happily, I was in the normal range and not in the feared overweight or obese zones.

I then engaged in a few balance tests before learning the most important statistic of my life: my "Wii Fit age." Like watching the ticking scale during the weigh-ins on "The Biggest Loser," my palms began to sweat as I awaited the big reveal.
Click. Click. Click. BOOM.

"50" appeared in a gigantic font behind my smiling avatar. For someone rapidly approaching 40, this extra decade was devastating news. Then the machine continued to taunt me by making fun of my lack of balance. "Do you often trip when you walk?" it sarcastically asked. "Only when carrying armloads of Nintendo equipment to the dumpster," I responded, ready to hurl my Wii remote through the flat-screen.

Instead, its childish taunts made me even more determined to succeed, unlike my entire adolescence when such teasing sent me running for the nurse’s office faking leukemia, diabetes or paralysis to avoid gym class for the foreseeable future. No, this time was going to be different. This sissy-boy was going to overcome!

As the next screen prompted me to action, I was required to select the male or female virtual trainer. Naturally, I chose the guy with the surprisingly hot computer-generated fitness guru with the sweet-yet-masculine voice eager to give me encouragement at every turn — and, I hoped, a rub-down in the cyber locker room afterward. (Yes, even in virtual reality, I’m a perv. But I can’t be the only one who’s spotted the nice animated bulge in his bicycle shorts.)

My trainer selected (I named him Miguel) and remote controllers strapped to my wrists for safety, I stretched my hamstrings and cracked my neck from side to side, just like an Olympian.

For the next hour, I took on various challenges, from deceptively simple balance games to crazy yoga poses and even an unexpectedly exhausting run around the beautiful countryside, in what I imagine to be a tiny town in Wii-sconsin. In some events, I excelled; in others, I was laughed at by not only my electronic nemeses, but also my partner, who heckled from a safe distance of my Wii Woop-Ass moves.

In the end, I actually felt like I got a pretty good workout. I don’t know that Wii Fit would ever replace my regular workouts with actual humans and non-pixelated fresh air, but I was oddly motivated to prove to this hunk of plastic, wires and memory chips that I was a contender.

And I’m happy to report that after a few more days of persistence, I successfully lowered my Wii Fit age to a young-and-beautiful 46. Ugh. But I’m not going to stop until I’m down to 23 and able to execute a perfect warrior I pose or flawless hula-hoop routine. I may trip when I walk in the real world, but in the universe inside my television, I’m Michael Frickin’ Phelps.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 20, 2009.

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