Weight loss and Nintendo Wii

29 Dec 2007 Posted by
Nintendo Wii is not an exercise and weight-loss option: A study you never thought you’d see

It’s been a quiet period for us over the last week, but we’re sure you understand! If you are anything like us, you’ve been relieved to you open your e-mail inbox to see nothing but a few junk emails, none of which require thought as you hit ‘delete’ (We hope that this email, if you’re reading it as an email, is not one of them!).

But we have received a few great emails, and questions, and one suggestion for a series on weight loss and running. That sounds like a great idea to us, and for sure, it’s in our list of “Topics to cover in 2008″.

But for today, I was in the process of doing a post looking back at the most interesting SPORTS SCIENCE articles of 2008. And as I was about to begin, I came across this really interesting article published this week in the British Medical Journal [1]. It’s interesting, not because it’s a breakthrough piece of research that will advance the field of exercise science or because it challenges existing thinking, but more because:

  • It might be relevant to you, if you have purchased one of these for Christmas
  • It is an indictment on society that there is even a need to do this type of study

The context – the gaming wars and obesity

Right, so here’s the context. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed the “computer game wars”, with Sony Playstation, Microsoft’s X-Box and Nintendo’s Wii all vying for market leadership in what is clearly an incredibly lucrative market.

For example, in August this year, it was reported that Nintendo Wii had become the fastest ever game-console to hit the 1 million mark in the United Kingdom – it took about 9 months. In August this year, total sales of 10.1 million Nintendo Wii, 10.3 million X-Box 360 and 4.1 million Playstation 3 were reported. I recall people queuing overnight to buy their consoles when they were first released, and even acts of violence when consoles were sold out! Perhaps you have further added to this number in the last few days…(though hopefully not with the violence option!)

At the same time, the obesity rates in the western world (Europe and N.America, mainly) have hit record highs (though the rate has apparently levelled off in the USA). This is the case for adults and children, but the increasing prevalence of obesity and the associated conditions are becoming more and more worrisome in younger populations. It’s reported that children in the UK spend an average of 12.2 hours PER WEEK playing computer games! Of course, the link is always made between computer games and obesity, because hours of computer games per day does not lend itself to a life of exercise and activity!

The marketing angle – Nintendo Wii causes more weight loss?

Now, you may be aware that the uniqueness of the Nintendo Wii system is that it involves the use of a hand-held wireless wand that requires the player to move around using arm motions. You can play games including tennis, golf, baseball, boxing and tenpin bowling. So it’s a “more active” form of computer gaming than the passive X-Box and Playstation fare, which is great for thumbs and wrist exercise, but not much else!

Or at least, that’s the claim. It seems that an entire industry jumped up around the Wii “Weight loss Plan”, and there were a number of bloggers who put the theory to the test. One gamer did a 6-week self-experiment in which he played Wii games for 30 minutes a day, and apparently came out 9 pounds (about 4kg) lighter at the end! While this is an interesting ‘experiment’, it has numerous flaws (I don’t think the author would ever claim it as a work of scientific integrity, to be fair – at least, I’d hope so), and so other studies were needed. This did not stop numerous TV appearances, marketing claims (obviously) and an added push to already growing Wii = Weight loss movement!

The study – Nintendo Wii – it burns you a quarter of a chocolate bar more per hour!

Enter researchers from John Moores University in Liverpool, who did a study that was published this past week. They looked at energy expenditure in 11 children (13 to 15 years old, boys and girls) playing either Nintendo Wii games (bowling, tennis and boxing), or an X-Box 360 game (Porject Gotham Racing 3, for those who are interested!) The objective, of course, was to measure energy use in order to predict whether the Wii burns more calories. If it does help with weight loss, then it will have comparable rates of energy use to other exercises, and much higher than for the X-Box.

The finding – a “whole” 250 kilojoules per hour more

So what did they find? Well, the table below shows the energy cost, in kJ per hour, for the X-Box game (a driving game, remember), the three Wii games and some other activities you will probably be more familiar with.

Energy-cost-computer-games

To put this even more into perspective, if you, as an adult (assuming you are, that is!) went out and ran at 5min/km for 60 minutes, you would be looking at between 2000 and 4000 kJ burned! It is admittedly impossible to compare, because the above values are for 15 year old children, and not typical 70 to 80kg males, but you get the point.

So there are really two messages here. Firstly, Wii games burn more energy than the X-Box 360 game tested. Secondly, neither comes near the good old-fashioned exercises that one would normally associate with weight loss. But that’s another point. For now, let’s stick with the study in question.

So then we have an increase of 51%, which at first glance must seem enormous. The Nintendo marketing team must be licking their lips…more on this later!

The reality is that the total amount of energy burned here is so small that it basically makes no difference – we’re talking a quarter of a Mars Bar per hour. Therefore, you have a choice of sitting down and playing X-Box and becoming unfit and overweight, or you can do the same playing Wii games, except you can eat a quarter of a chocolate bar more per hour of playing before you get there! So yes, you can have your 51% more, but it’s 51% of such a tiny amount that you’re better off simply getting up to change the TV channel a dozen times a day than going for Wii instead of the other options.

Putting a spin on things

But, as one might expect, the finding is being spun in different directions, depending on who you ask. The afore-mentioned gamer who lost 4kg playing Wii says in his website that “studies conclude that Wii is a viable workout”. Depends on how you define “viable” – if viable means you burn a quarter of a chocolate bar more per hour, then it certainly does help.

The scientists who performed the experiment, incidentally, suggested that “the energy used when playing active Wii Sports games was not of high enough intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children”. That hardly sounds like the description of a viable workout to me! They do however admit that the “trivial” amount could still make a contribution to weight management, but then so again, so could about a hundred other things. For example, you probably burn this much simply by parking at the far end of the lot at the shopping mall and walking!

I think that the point is that if you are completely inactive, and you do NOTHING but play computer games, then suddenly swopping Wii for the other two is going to make a difference – hey, just the fact that you might stand up makes a difference! But the reality is that given lifetime of Wii, you still won’t be exercising!

A sad indictment on society

I think that the mere fact that this debate exists is a worrying and sad indictment on society. I must emphasize that I’m actually not against computer games – in fact, I confess that one of my very own Christmas presents was Madden 08 – a Playstation game, which I’ve put to use since the 25th! But everything in moderation, that’s the key.

And the point is, you cannot substitute computer games for exercise. Parents who allow their children to spend hours a day in front of a television without encouraging exercise are, in my opinion, walking a fine line of neglect, because of the health problems those childrens may one day experience as a result of neglect. And choosing Wii over Playstation or X-Box 360 because they think they’re encouraging exercise is a futile exercise.

In fact, I suspect it will be a matter of time before an adult with heart disease and obesity sues their parents for neglect for failing to encourage exercise when they were younger! Stranger things have happened!

It seems to me that we are moving further and further away from ‘traditional’ exercise, which has led us into the era of justifying an activity such as computer games as a means for weight loss! One might however argue that “if you can’t beat them join them”. That is, children enjoy the games enough to want to play them, so we might as well figure out ways to get them active doing what they want to do, because forcing exercise is perhaps even more futile. However, this strikes me as slightly defeatist, though I recognize the tricky situation that exists for parents.

I’m young enough to appreciate the emergence of computer games, but fortunately I am old enough to remember that when I was 13 (as the children were in this study), my family did not yet have a personal computer (this was in 1994, we were slow on the uptake! I’m grateful!), and so I spent my Saturday afternoons playing soccer, tennis, cricket or running with friends. I never knew better, and perhaps that is the problem – children simply “know better”, and prefer to spend their time playing “virtual tennis” in the comfort of their homes, with a Coke and a packet of Crisps an arm’s length away.

So they’re playing Wii and using their arms – great. But what happened to actually playing tennis? That’s the control group that was needed in the Liverpool study, that’s the comparison we should be talking about. But then we all know what that would show, right?

Ross

Check out the “Addendum” to this post, looking at the interpretation of the results and the possible conflict of interests with the study

References

  1. L. Graves, G. Stratton, N.D. Ridgers, and N.T. Cable, “Comparison of energy expenditure in adolescents when playing new generation and sedentary computer games: cross sectional study”, BMJ, vol. 335, pp. 1282-1284, 2007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39415.632951.80