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Nintendo Wii - Is It Really Physical Activity?

Monday, February 08, 2010 Posted by Travis Saunders

Last Friday, 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

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10 Response to "Nintendo Wii - Is It Really Physical Activity?"

  1. Sophie Said,

    Exercising outdoors rather than indoors can help fight against the obesity epidemic, and against the shortsightedness epidemic.
    Wii won’t help you in the second fight.

    Posted on February 8, 2010 at 2:34 PM

  2. Interrobang Said,

    Great, so now the dim bulbs at New Scientist (who seem to be on a fast track for a Templeton Prize) are calling myopia an "epidemic"? Isn't that, um, fudging a bit with the definition of "epidemic"?

    Also, aside from the fact that it drives us hyperopes nuts to have everybody nearsighted and their equally-nearsighted brother peering into our faces from inside our focal length all the time, does anybody really care?

    Posted on February 8, 2010 at 2:46 PM

  3. gamercize @ Said,

    Exergaming is so much more than Wii; part of being a researcher is to do some research, so can you find out what exergamer is four times more energetic than Wii, six times more engaging than exercise and infinitely more effective in hard to reach populations with combating sedentary lifestyle and poor weight management?

    Posted on February 8, 2010 at 6:33 PM

  4. Travis Saunders Said,

    @ Sophie & Interrobang,

    Thanks for the comments.

    @ Gamercize,

    I realize that exergaming is much more than Wii - but Wii is the one that is brought up most frequently in discussions with friends and colleagues, and frankly it's the one that I find most controversial.

    But now that you're here, I'd love to hear your arguments as to why exergaming is the wave of the future. Since you mentioned weight management - could you suggest any papers examining the effectiveness of exergaming on weight management?


    Posted on February 8, 2010 at 7:16 PM

  5. gamercize @ Said,

    @ Travis

    Why is exergaming the wave of the future? Now that's an answer for an entire presentation, not just a single comment!! (I'll drop you the link if you're interested).

    To cut a long story short exergaming takes the enjoyment of gaming into the physical realm. Being active must be sustainable and one way to make this possible (aside from warnings of grave medical peril) is the make it fun.

    In the 21st century levels of PA have dropped due mainly to technology and changes in working lives, so we tend to think of exercise in a block as an activity by itself. To compete for free time with TV, gaming and other sedentary activities, exercise needs to be enjoyable. Exergaming does this.

    As far as a study, I'm sorry to say that the aforementioned exergame has taken nearly all the research focus. This is a pity because the outcomes are just not there with this implementation, and if researchers looked at other options the results (and real strengths of exergaming) could be proved.

    I must point out that it has to be free researcher choice, not "company sponsored", for a significant study to be credible. However, we have done some data collection which may be interesting. See

    Posted on February 9, 2010 at 7:59 AM

  6. Caroline Said,

    If changing one's levels of physical activity is anything like changing one's dietary habits, I think it would be really challenging to get someone (whether it be a kid or an adult) who does not exercise at all to go grom couch to outdoor vigorous activity overnight... I could see exergaming as being a sort of springboard to a more active lifestyle... I don't have any evidence to support this, this is just a hypothesis.

    Posted on February 9, 2010 at 9:47 AM

  7. Anonymous Said,

    Your prediction is correct in our case. Prior to we my son had a ps2 and his only game was dance dance revolution. Thats a work out.

    The wii sports only led to other sedentary wii games. Now he doesn't do wii sports or DDR.

    Posted on February 9, 2010 at 5:12 PM

  8. Matthew Said,

    Hi Travis,

    I like your post. It's thought provoking. Obese kids usually do not like exercising. This is part of the reason they are obese. On the other hand, kids enjoy participating in "fun-type" activities. This is where Wii comes into play. The problem with Wii (and I may be wrong with what I am going to say because my experience with Wii is limited) is that the intensity of the exercise in low. It hardly involves major muscles (thighs, back, etc). I believe Wii could increase kids' overall physical activity to a lot more than 2%, if the intensity of the exercise was higher. This of course means that the "fun" factor would have to increase, too.

    Posted on February 9, 2010 at 11:12 PM

  9. Travis Saunders Said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone, this is turning into a good discussion!

    @ Gamercize,

    I'm sympathetic to your argument. But screen time is a big part of the current obesity/chronic disease epidemic, and it is hard to believe that more screen time is somehow going to fix the situation. It's a bit like when Homer Simpson said that alcohol is both the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems :)

    It seems that a better approach would be to get kids unplugged from the TV in general. I imagine that the response to that would be that it is simply unfeasible.

    I think exergaming is a tool that could be useful in some instances, but I am skeptical about it having a tremendous societal impact until I see some well designed clinical trials. It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out.

    @ Caroline,

    I agree that it might be too much to ask a sedentary individual to suddenly start an intense exercise program. But I also think that small lifestyle changes (e.g. taking the stairs, increasing the number of steps per day, using transit instead of driving, etc) are likely to be more sustainable, and have an overall larger impact than videogaming. As I mentioned above, I'm really eager to see more research in this area so that we can start to nail these things down a bit.

    @ Matthew,

    I agree completely. But I also wonder whether someone who usually doesn't enjoy intense exercise, will somehow enjoy it more on the Wii. The discomfort that can come from exercise will be just as bad... the hope is that it's mitigated by the fun of the videogaming. I'm just not sure whether that will be the case or not.


    Posted on February 9, 2010 at 11:25 PM

  10. lifeexplorerdiscovery Said,

    Exergaming through the Wii and other gaming consoles is great especially if you are like me.

    I have no car so finding a good gym is hard, the one near me is too male centric for my tastes (as a female).

    I also don't like working out in public. Nor do I have any motivation to stay on a treadmill for even 10 minutes.

    Finally, playing tennis, baseball, and other sports in real life is absolutely no fun because I not only suck but I am also stuck around people who take the game too serious and suck the fun right out of that.

    So exergaming provides all the benefits of the real thing but takes people out of the equation, which I like.

    Posted on September 17, 2011 at 4:44 PM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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