Sorry gamers, 'exergaming' is no substitute for the real thing

By Michael Rosenberg

Games that use your whole body like Zumba are better than those with isolated arm movements.
Games that use your whole body like Zumba are better than those with isolated arm movements.

It's been about ten years since Sony popularised "exergaming" - games where you move your body along with the game - with the release of Eye Toy. The device projected players into video games by getting them to control an avatar through body movement and sound. Now you can bowl or play tennis on the Nintendo Wii, Dance with the Sony PlayStation Move and kick a football on the X-Box Kinect.

One of the first exergaming tools, the Eye Toy.
One of the first exergaming tools, the Eye Toy.

People often spend too much time in front of screens doing sedentary things such as watching TV, using computers and playing games, rather than getting enough physical activity. So the combination of playing games with movement in front of a television screen seems like a great idea for people who find it difficult to get other exercise or just enjoy indoor gaming.

But while exergaming has been shown to increase energy expenditure under laboratory conditions, there is still little evidence to support the long-term benefits of relying on it to improve your health.

Overnight success

Exergaming became an almost overnight phenomenon after Wii was launched in 2006. Not only because of its new hand held motion controller and other peripheral devices, but because it changed how consumers viewed gaming consoles and was popular with everyone including parents.

Some schools have even included exergames in their PE programs to motivate students who do not like traditional sport and for use when bad weather restricts participation in traditional physical exercise.

Early research exploring the health benefits of exergaming focused on the energy used while playing. They showed that Wii games, for example, could contribute to health benefits from physical activities and reduce sitting time. But when placed in people's homes the novelty quickly wore off.

It isn't all about gamers though. The Wii, along with newer consoles, has been used for rehabilitation and in other clinical settings where activity can be monitored.

Wii Fit launched the fitness game genre in 2008.
Wii Fit launched the fitness game genre in 2008.

Evolving market

Microsoft raised the exergaming bar in 2010 with the release of the Kinect Optical Sensor. The Kinect differed from previous technologies because now the player acted as the controller. Body, arm and leg movements are detected by the sensor and used to play games. Similar to the Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Kinect Games when played in controlled environments could have cardiovascular health benefits and over multiple gaming sessions could see similar levels of energy being used.

Before Kinect was released in 2010, extracting human movement from captured video required complex analysis that was time-consuming and very expensive. As well as untethering the Kinect sensor from the gaming console and hand held remotes, Microsoft opened the software that controls the console to all software engineers.

With Nintendo releasing the Wii U in 2012, Sony the PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One released in 2013, each with variations on how people interact with the console and games, the exergaming market continues to evolve and there are now more opportunities for the gaming market to develop exergames and potential health benefits.

Wii Fit launched the fitness game genre in 2008.
Wii Fit launched the fitness game genre in 2008.

Sticking to the game

If you're prepared to play these games with as much energy as you can, this constitutes as exercise. At the very least they will reduce the time you spend sitting. Games that require full body movement, like zumba dancing, are more likely to require greater energy expenditure than games with only arm movements, like tennis.

New exergaming technology has the potential to monitor energy expenditure through heart rate reading and better body tracking. This might also encourage people to be more active when playing.

Exergames have so far not proven to be a panacea for physical inactivity - largely because people don't play them regularly enough and they seem to have a short shelf-life. The current crop are far less popular than the more traditional style games like Grand Theft Auto, first person shoot 'em ups like Call of Duty and sport simulation games like FIFA Soccer - which all require minimal physical exertion.

There are probably health benefits to be gained from existing exergames. But like many existing pieces of exercise equipment they require motivation to set up and turn on, discipline to use and perseverance. As the technology evolves there is certain to be plenty of opportunities for them to be part of a healthy lifestyle.


Michael Rosenberg is an Associate Professor, Health Promotion Evaluation Unit at University of Western Australia. He has his colleagues received a research grant from The Western Australian Health Promotion Foundation to develop a health rating scale for active video games

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