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Summer’s coming

Can Wii get you fit? We put Boston athletes to the test.

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / May 6, 2010

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I BLAME MY mother for all of this. She went on a cruise, won big on the slots, and instead of buying yarn to knit socks like a good mother should, she spent her winnings on a Wii, the motion-sensitive video-game system that allows you to play virtual tennis and a multitude of other sports and games.

It’s not just slot-playing ladies of a certain age who are snatching up the Wii in record numbers. Wii Fit has sold more than 22 million copies in the US since its introduction in 2007. There was even a shortage of Wii balance boards after Christmas, when, according to a spokeswoman for Nintendo, demand outstripped supply. These days, though, the Wii Fit Plus and its accompanying balance board are back on shelves.

With the explosion in popularity has come an increasing number of exercise titles for the gaming console. Nintendo acknowledges that Wii Fit Plus is not intended as a weight loss tool. It’s designed to harvest couch potatoes and get them moving. In fact, a study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise last year found that people burn more calories by performing the actual activity vs. the video-game version. The study also found that the games of Wii Sports (tennis, boxing, and so on) can be slightly more effective than Wii Fit.

Still, with Wii’s explosion in popularity, companies are creating calorie-burning games for the console. How good a workout are they? With summer right around the corner, we enlisted a handful of local pros — from the Boston Bruins, the Boston Breakers, and from some of the city’s top fitness clubs — to try them out and rate them. Some of the results are surprising.

LAURA WILLIAMSON

AGE: 37 DAY JOB: Trainer for Boston’s Sports Club/LA

GAME TESTED: Your Shape Featuring Jenny McCarthy

This game is unusual not only because Jenny McCarthy is a former Playboy model, but because it requires no Wii remote or balance board. The game comes with a webcam that hooks into the Wii. The camera then watches and analyzes your movements to make sure that you’re following the exercises properly.

Williamson found that to be an advantage. The downside was that the camera didn’t always pick up every move, so her scores were not as high as they should have been. But Williamson, a pilates expert, still found the mix of cardio and strength-training exercises challenging.

“Now I remember why I don’t take classes,’’ she said as she followed along with the squats and leg extensions. “This is really hard.’’

Williamson was having such a good time that she tried some other games as well.

“It’s great for someone who is less active and needs motivation to get moving,’’ she said. “It’s probably not ideal for a weekend warrior who is active and already getting a lot of exercise. But it’s good for people who need to get their heart rate up.’’

Despite some of the technical camera glitches, Williamson enjoyed McCarthy’s perky attitude and liked the fact that the game allows users to tailor workouts that target specific areas.

Pluses: Allows a workout free from the worry that you may accidentally throw your remote through your television screen.

Minuses: The sensitive camera requires lots of room to work out, a challenge for those in cramped apartments.

Challenging: 3 stars

Entertaining: 5 stars

Effective home workout: (Williamson: “For novices’’) 3 stars

PAUL GOZBEKIAN

AGE: 41 DAY JOB: Trainer for Equinox

GAME TESTED: Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010

Fitness Ultimatum 2010 takes place on a digital tropical island, where a salty-mouthed avatar of Jillian Michaels, a trainer from NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,’’ leads players through a series of exercises that vary in length and difficulty depending on settings.

“Is this game R-rated?’’ Gozbekian asked after Michaels hurls another barb at him.

Because Gozbekian is a pro, he chooses an intense workout. At the beginning, he’s quite pleased with the results.

“It’s definitely great having her set a pace,’’ he said. “Plus you’re hitting the legs, the chest, and the core. It’s pretty comprehensive.’’

He also doesn’t seem to mind jogging behind the shapely digital version of Michaels. The workout is so comprehensive that after about 15 minutes, he’s dripping with sweat. So much for the assumption that these games would be a cakewalk for fitness professionals. Meanwhile avatar Michaels screams, “Don’t waste my time!’’ at Gozbekian, who’s trying to keep up with him through 96 crunches.

“I was in the Army, and I never did this many sit-ups,’’ he said. “I also think my drill sergeant was nicer.’’ Gozbekian is impressed with his total body workout, which effectively raised his heart rate and worked most of his major muscle groups. So could the game replace a personal trainer?

“I don’t think so,’’ he said. “I could spend a good month on this, but the reps would grow stagnant. I wouldn’t be pushing myself enough. Eventually I’d plateau.’’ www.jillianmichaels.com

Pluses: Well-designed exercise routines, works most muscle groups, some gentlemen might enjoy the scantily clad Michaels’s avatar.

Minuses: Michaels’s motivational mouthing off can get repetitive. There is an odd delay between each exercise.

Challenging: 4 stars

Entertaining: 3 stars

Effective home workout: 4 stars

DENNIS SEIDENBERG

AGE: 28 DAY JOB: Boston Bruins defenseman

GAME TESTED: Wii Fit Plus

Seidenberg is sidelined for eight weeks after a tendon in his left forearm was lacerated during a game last month. Given that his activities are limited by the cast on his wrist, he was an ideal candidate to try Wii Fit Plus, the game that comes with the purchase of the balance board. Wii Fit Plus includes yoga, strength training, balance games, aerobics, and a section called “training plus,’’ a mix of games added after the launch of the original Wii Fit.

For folks who are generally averse to exercise, Wii Fit is a good first step toward getting your backside off the sofa. This was the case with Seidenberg, who confessed before trying the Wii in the Bruins locker room: “Normally, I’d be taking a nap right now.’’

Wii Fit Plus scores high for simple, clear design and pure entertainment. And it’s certainly entertaining to watch a professional hockey player get competitive with a digital hula hoop. As it happens, Seidenberg has a Wii at home, but plays Wii Sports rather than Fit. He gives Wii Fit high points for being able to make the exercises either easy or challenging.

“Some of the fitness games are not as entertaining as the balance games, but that’s not too surprising,’’ he said after a few strength training games. He quickly finds himself back at the hula hoop game, where, after a shaky start, he easy bests his hula hooping score, and is ready for another round. www.wiifit.com

Pluses: Good design, wide variety of activities, suitable for young and old, keeps a record of weight gains and losses over an extended period.

Minuses: Not possible to exercise in a circuit.

Challenging: 3 stars

Entertaining: 5 stars

Effective home workout: (Seidenberg: “Particularly with strength training’’) 3 stars

KASEY MOORE

AGE: 22 DAY JOB: Defender for the Boston Breakers soccer team

GAME TESTED: The Biggest Loser

The video game version of the popular weight loss reality show not only addresses exercise, but also calorie intake and lifestyle choices. Moore heads straight to the exercise, because as a professional soccer player, calories are not an issue.

Instead of creating an on-screen character who resembled her, as with most Wii games, Moore has to represent herself with a former “Biggest Loser’’ contestant. If she were to play the game over several weeks and lost weight, her chubby digital doppelganger would slim down. For now, she appears larger than life on screen.

After choosing to work with trainer Bob Harper, Moore starts a moderate workout. She noted that many of the exercises are the same as the exercises she performs with her team during warm-ups.

Unlike most Wii fitness games, The Biggest Loser seamlessly moves from one exercise to the next with a series of short repetitions. Moore switches from lateral lunges to squats to leg kicks. She’s enjoying herself. Asked if she would like to stop, her response is a quick: “No way.’’

“I’m totally buying this for my mom for Mother’s Day,’’ she said.

Moore was in strong disagreement with the on-screen calorie counter (“I’ve burned more than 47 calories!’’) but was otherwise impressed with the game. Even if you’re not a fan of the show, it offers an effective workout. www.biggestloserthegame.com

Pluses: Short, repetitive, and fun exercises with few breaks.

Minuses: Watching a 350-pound version of yourself working out on screen can be disheartening.

Challenging: 4 stars

Entertaining: 4 stars

Effective home workout: 4 stars

ALBERT SAMANO

AGE: 32 DAY JOB: Trainer for Boston Sports Club

GAME TESTED: EA Sports Active Personal Trainer

Samano, a spirited trainer with a sculpted physique, started sweating — heavily — shortly after he started his workout with EA Sports Active. Could this be the most challenging work out of the bunch?

“No, not at all,’’ he said. “I’m a total sweaty spaghetti.’’

In fact, the biggest obstacle to this workout seemed to be getting the Wii’s wireless sensors to follow along Samano’s actions. There were very specific instructions about how to hold the Wii remote, and if it wasn’t pointing in a particular direction, the finicky game scolded Samano for not completing his reps properly. Like The Biggest Loser and Jillian Michaels, the regiment featured a circuit of cardio-heavy exercises designed to work different parts of the body. For a muscle-focused guy like Samano, the cardio offered a sufficiently challenging workout. He was concerned, however, that the machine could not determine if his posture was correct during the exercises.

“It can’t figure out if I’m doing these exercises with my shoulders slouched or my back straight,’’ Samano said. “That could be more harmful than helpful for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.’’

He also worried that the running in place segment could lead to shin splints. To be fair, however, most of the fitness games are unable to determine posture during play and all could result in the same injuries if used improperly. The games only sense broad movements or general bouncing. Samano did like the encouraging words of his unseen trainer, who gave him plenty of positive reinforcement. His overall assessment is that the game would be ideal for a fitness beginner, or an older person who wants to be active. He felt it would not provide noticeable results for someone who was looking to gain muscle or sculpt their body. www.easportsactive.com

Pluses: Does not require the use of a Wii balance board, comes with a tension band to help make some of the exercises a bit less virtual.

Minuses: Game has too-specific instructions about holding the remote, which complicates portions of the workout.

Challenging: 3 stars

Entertaining: 3 stars

Effective home work out: 2 stars

Testing Wii workouts
Photos

Testing Wii workouts

From a Bruins defensemen to local trainers, see them in action.