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Can I Lose Weight Playing Video Games?

Wii Fit U says I’m a world class salsa dancer. Xbox Fitness has me crawling on the floor. Can I lose weight playing video games?

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty

Gamers are stereotypically unhealthy, lazy, and all sorts of other unflattering adjectives. Valid or not (absolutely not), it’s certainly fair to say that people who spend a portion of their day sitting in front of a TV playing videogames could benefit from having more active experiences. It’s a big part of why the original Wii Sports was such a success, even if many so-called “hardcore” gamers chose to sit on their couch and flick their wrists, complaining that it was no fun.

When Nintendo released the original Wii Fit in 2008, packed in the box was the Balance Board, an 8 pound hunk of plastic that the player would stand on, and it would track their force, balance, and weight. It was the primary control input for the game. It sold gangbusters. By the end of 2011, gamers purchased nearly 42 million Balance Boards.

Since then, there has been a lull in the fitness game genre. Until now.

As the new generation of game consoles flood store shelves, Nintendo has released a successor, Wii Fit U. And standing up to them now is Microsoft itself, with Xbox Fitness, available to anybody with an Xbox One and an Xbox Live Gold subscription.

But can either of them really make you healthy? To find out I spent some time with both.

Xbox Fitness

Xbox Fitness opens with a screen telling players that they should consult a doctor before undertaking any sort of training exercise. It seems like a cop-out, because no one is going to follow the advice and first-time players really don’t know what they’re in for. They’ll sign in and be recommended Tracy Anderson’s “Transform” workout. They’ll probably click on it.

And they won’t be able to handle it.

You see, Xbox Fitness is not really a game in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s a series of real workout videos by the likes of 10 Minute Solutions, Beachbody, P90X, and trainers like Jillian Michaels and the aforementioned Tracy Anderson. Each exercise session is one of these gamified workout videos, just like the DVDs you can buy, but beneath it is a timer; next to it is a running score and a gray shadow representation of whoever it’s tracking, that shows when the system can see you and when it can’t.

I’m 5’11”, around 152 pounds. I try to work out consistently, so I have a bit of muscle. That being said, I have no stamina whatsoever. Healthy but not really “in shape” (as I already knew but would learn the hard way very soon). My only real exercise trick is that I drink protein powder after each session, because it means I’m less sore the next day.

The following is a diary of my time with Xbox Fitness:

Day one: Seven minutes and thirty seconds into Tracey Anderson’s “Transform,” I had to pause (which requires actually grabbing a controller and press the menu button, which is inefficient at best) and get a drink. I was reasonably sure I wasn’t going to make it through this 30+ minute workout, because I was already exhausted, but I drank some water and pushed on. Just before minute twelve, I was doing pushups plus leg extensions, and I just collapsed to the floor. I crawled over to my controller, feeling absolutely terrible about myself, while the inhuman Tracey Anderson, not even breaking a sweat, kept on trucking.

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I shut off the system, and texted every single person I knew about how ridiculous Xbox Fitness was. I couldn’t believe that they had recommended that workout on my first try. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the base level would be, I don’t know, doable to someone who isn’t already totally in shape. It honestly seemed to defeat the purpose of the whole thing.

I then convinced a friend fitter than I am to give it a go on his own system. He, too, was recommended “Transform,” and he too threw in the towel. He gave up at minute eight.

Day two: Lesson learned. Today, I just did a ten minute cardio exercise. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized not only was there never a warm up, but there was no cool down. One of the app’s intro screens is a recommendation: “Stretch for a few minutes before,” but that advice is iffy at best. In lieu of any in-app guidance, I decided to look to the Internet for answers. And I found something that surprised me: A Time article titled “Why Stretching May Not Help Before Exercise.” Thanks, Xbox.

Day three: At multiple points during today’s workout, the Kinect stopped tracking me. In all cases, it was while I was lying on the floor doing crunches or other similar drills. A few times it lost my lower body (kind of bizarre, seeing the shadow of my torso reaching towards nothing), and occasionally it lost me entirely. It recommended I stand up and face the system. But while I do this, the instructor keeps going. It doesn’t matter if I’m there or not. My score isn’t going up and I’m missing this exercise.

But it’s not my fault. It’s the hardware’s. (And this has continued to happen well after day three.)

Day five: I happen upon a Ten Minute Solutions DVD for Pilates lying around somewhere. Why the heck isn’t there yoga training on Xbox Fitness? Yoga is awesome. And it seems like the tracking system would make it extremely useful for that. Maybe it’s available for purchase.

You see, Xbox Fitness comes with a lot of free videos (if you have an Xbox Live Gold subscription, of course), but you can always buy more, and there are plenty of in-app reminders of that. Extra programs range from $9.99 to $29.99, which makes the fact that so many (thirty-seven!) are included free rather impressive. In fact, for a certain type of person, the free videos alone could help justify the $560 price tag (of the system and Xbox Live Gold subscription).

Day six: Are my shoulder muscles actually bigger? I don’t know how often I look in the mirror, but I was flexing in the bathroom just to see if anything had happened, and you know what? I think there’s been an improvement. Maybe it’s a psychological thing. It was definitely invigorating.

Day eight: Wow this thing crashes a lot. Every other day, in fact, I have had to pull the plug on my Xbox One and reset the entire system. Each time, I’ve had annoyances with signing in or having the app freeze at a blank screen. With no way to easily kill an app and restart it, I am forced to reset my console.

Day nine: Ow. My back hurts. That’s not good. Maybe I should take a break from this Xbox thing.

So that’s when I stopped, at least for the moment, because Xbox Fitness is just one half of the equation.

Is Wii Fit, the originator, still the master?

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: It’s complicated.

Wii Fit U

Unlike Xbox Fitness, Wii Fit U is a video game. In lieu of famous DVD trainers, it features a monochromatic animated guide with a soothing voice leading you through your workouts.

If you have a Balance Board and download the game before January 31, Wii Fit U is free for thirty-one days. After that you can keep the game indefinitely by plunking down $20 for the Fit Meter, a pedometer of sorts that syncs up with the game. Those who wait until after the month is over will have to buy the game wholesale: $50 with the Fit Meter or $90 with the Fit Meter and Balance Board.

The Fit Meter may be Wii Fit U’s best feature. It has three sensors which track steps, acceleration, and altitude. It also does a rudimentary calculation of calories burned. These numbers are then downloaded into the game each time you boot up and added to the daily total. But the real trick is not in its tech so much as its very existence. Put the Fit Meter on your bedside table and see it every morning. Attach it to your belt and bring it with you everywhere. You will think, “I should probably increase that step count.” The calorie meter—accurate or not—helps too, because it feels like an accomplishment to see that number go up. Set a goal for a certain number of steps and it becomes easy. You don’t have to go to the gym, or even go in front of a TV to workout.

You just need to walk. But every time you check that little piece of plastic, you’ll be reminded of your Wii U, of Wii Fit U, maybe of New Super Mario Bros. U or any of the system’s newer games. It makes you think about your health and about Nintendo’s product line.

It’s kind of genius.

Day one: The Balance Board is extremely sensitive to any shifts in movement, which is both good and bad. It’s good, because it’s accurate. It’s bad, because it’s showing you your center of gravity on a digital representation of the Balance Board; even if my little fluctuations are within the circle of acceptability, it still looks like I’m moving around like a wild man. Looking at a static object makes it easier to keep balance. Watching the constantly-moving red dot that represents my center makes it harder.

Day two: The game has told me I’m a world class salsa dancer. It’s wrong, but appreciated. Unfortunately, while I like dancing, I don’t like dancing on Wii Fit U. It uses two Wii Remotes and the Balance Board and each time you step or shake your hands, the system plays a sound. Not only is the sound extremely annoying, there is a slight delay that means that everything sounds off beat even if the game tells you it’s “perfect.” Ugh.

Day four: I have figured out why Wii Fit U doesn’t work for me: There’s no momentum. Exercises can last for minutes or they can be seconds, and every single time one exercise becomes another one, there’s a break. Sometimes it’s a break for the player to grab a pair of Wii Remotes, other times it’s because the game feels it is necessary to reteach you how to do something. Even when it’s just a few seconds of transitioning from one to the next, the heat of the moment is gone.

There is one particular mini game where the player-character is on a trampoline. The player squats on the Balance Board, and then lifts to their toes to simulate jumping (never jump on the Balance Board). Their center of balance will define where they land on the trampoline so they can try it again. The goal is to go as high as possible. I got one decent jump in there, but I misunderstood the center of balance thing. The whole thing lasted about twenty seconds. During them, I was into it. I was doing full squats and really going for the movement. I wanted to be working out.

And then it stopped, completely killing the mood. Plus, there’s no way to instantly restart, so you have to go through four different screens in order to replay that one, and another couple if you want to change up. It’s needlessly long and complicated.

Day six: It seems like setting up an exercise routine rather than trying to get something from a series of individual games helps a lot. I ended up doing 17 minutes of “intense” strength training (70 calories burned, enough to mitigate two slices of American cheese), mostly because choosing only that category kept me away from dancing. I didn’t get to choose the exercises themselves, but it was a good workout.

Day eight: The Gamepad has a built in front-facing camera, and though the quality is unacceptably bad, it is useful in Wii Fit U’s “Mirror Mode.” When Mirror Mode is enabled, only for strength exercises, yoga, and the like, the TV screen splits in two. On one side is the digital instructor; on the other is the view from the gamepad’s camera. You can watch yourself do the exercise right next to the model. Because the Gamepad is by definition portable, you can put the “mirror” anywhere, which is helpful, because not all exercises have you looking or moving in the same direction. Xbox Fitness may have that shadow-y representation, but I would like to see a live feed, especially in those moments where it loses me.

The Verdict

Can video games really make you healthier?

Yeah, if you use them right. When I was deep into Xbox Fitness, I was feeling good about myself and enjoying the workout. By the end of it, I started to enjoy looking in the mirror. Wii Fit U is a bigger experience, but it also takes a lot more work. Even when you’ve figured out what you want to do, it still takes far too long. That being said, I’ve got that Fit Meter hooked to my belt loop, and it keeps me thinking about exercising in a way that Xbox Fitness doesn’t. Microsoft’s product is just too attached to the TV.

A game that took Xbox Fitness’ real workouts and the Kinect functionality (when it works) and combined that with Wii Fit U’s stability, variety of exercises/games (especially its focus on yoga), Balance Board, and Fit Meter should be spectacular. It wouldn’t necessarily be a total replacement for a gym and a personal trainer, but it would be close enough for the vast majority of people. Unfortunately, that’s not what we have.

I’m going to stick with Xbox Fitness, though… At least until I can make it through “Transform.”