Is the Wii Really Good for Your Health?

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Nintendo / AP

People use the Nintendo Wii for exercise.

A week after Nintendo's Wii debuted in November, the Wall Street Journal reported that the gaming console was leaving some users as sore as the gym often does. Unlike traditional hand-held video games, where users sit on the couch exercising little more than their thumbs, the Wii (pronounced "we" not "why") features digital sensors that let users virtually play the game. In Wii Sports, a game that comes with the console, users mimic the motions used in sports like bowling, tennis and baseball. In other words, the game may be virtual, but the physical exertion is very real.

So much so that, according to the Journal, gamers complained of "aching backs, sore shoulders — even something some have dubbed "Wii elbow." Nintendo spokeswoman Perrin Kaplan downplayed the report, saying the company hadn't received any complaints from users about soreness. "If people are finding themselves sore, they may need to exercise more," she said. "It was not meant to be a Jenny Craig supplement."

But that's where she may be wrong. Not only have some gamers started turning the Wii and other similar active gaming consoles into a new form of exercise, but medical researchers are touting their health potential for more than just weight loss. A research team at the University of Toronto is developing a "therapeutic video game" to treat children who suffer from hemiplegic cerebral palsy, a condition that can partially paralyze one side of the body. If the children regularly use their weaker side, their motor function can improve. The problem is getting the children to do so outside of therapy sessions. Active video games might do the trick, thought William Li, an undergraduate engineering student at the University of Toronto who is conducting research at the university's Bloorview Kids Rehab teaching hospital.

With university researchers, he devised a game console that requires the children to use their dominant hand to hold down a button on their chair. With the weaker hand, the children can play an active video game. "It's a lot of fun to use, and the movements are the types of things that might be promoted in physical therapy or occupational therapy," Li says. "[And] the kids don't have to feel different. This is a game they can take home and play with siblings and friends."

Wii's psychological impact may even speed up the recovery process. Mary Jane Zamora, who lives in Redondo Beach, Calif., has battled breast cancer since she was diagnosed in February 2005. After a round of chemotherapy before Christmas in December, she was too tired to get off the couch. Then her grown daughters brought over a Wii. Together they played bowling, tennis and golf. "It got a little exhausting," Zamora says, but she was hooked and began playing on her own every day. Soon after joining a local bowling league, she was named the league's Most Improved Player. "What this game did for me was encourage me that I could still do these kinds of things," she says. "It came around when I needed it. I can see where people could really benefit from being able to interact without having do to much physical exertion."

But weight loss is still probably the biggest health benefit the Wii will have for users. Active video games like the Wii can fight child obesity, according to a report published by the Mayo Clinic in the January issue of Pediatrics. In that study, researchers found that children burned three times as many calories playing "active" video games versus playing traditional hand-held video games. Because the study was done before the Wii debuted, researchers tested Sony's EyeToy and Microsoft's Xbox. But Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, the report's lead researcher, expects the Wii to have the same effect. "If children are up moving around versus sitting down, then they're going to burn more calories," she says.

In December Mickey DeLorenzo, a computer programmer in Philadelphia, hypothesized that he could lose weight by playing the Wii for 30 minutes a day. He lost nine pounds in six weeks and is on his way to becoming the next Jared of Subway fame. In January DeLorenzo signed a book deal, tentatively titled The Wii Workout and teamed up with, a social networking site for dieters and fitness buffs, to feature his new regime. "It's becoming something like a Richard Simmons show," says DeLorenzo, who's received dozens of fan emails. "People will write, 'You've inspired me to buy a Wii and start working out.'"

Two months after dismissing the Wii's exercising potential, Nintendo spokeswoman Perrin Kaplan now embraces it. "One of our hopes was that people would find a way to enjoy the Wii sitting on the couch or getting up and moving their body around," she says. "This huge fitness craze was more than we had anticipated."