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A Wii Bit of Science 

Research is underway all over the world to assess the health benefits of Wii Fit

The Wii Fit was the most popular online purchase on Black Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, in 2008. More than 7 million of the fitness platforms have been sold since it was introduced in the U.S. about a year ago. But it hasn’t just fascinated gamers; it has caught the interest of researchers in a variety of fields, all over the globe.

At Montreal’s McGill University, researchers studying childhood obesity put the Wii Fit’s hula hoop and running game to the test and found that exercisers achieved about 60 percent of their maximum heart rate — on the low end of workout effectiveness, but better than just staring into the TV screen. (Exercise at a level between 60 percent and 85 percent of a person’s maximum heart rate — calculated by subtracting your age from 220 — is considered effective for improving cardiovascular fitness.)

While the Wii Fit game may not keep a regular exerciser working hard enough to yield results, researchers concluded the game does offer a way to burn some calories for kids who would otherwise be sitting motionless save for their twitching thumbs.

Results aren’t yet in on a six-month study started last fall at the University of Mississippi looking at fitness levels of eight families using the Wii Fit. The families’ fitness levels will be compared during three months of having the game in their homes and three months without it. The big question: Like so many treadmills and stationary bicycles, will the Wii Fit sit lonely and unused? Or will families get hooked by its catchy games and interactive graphics?

In England, studies are underway to see whether using the Wii Fit’s balance exercise program might help reduce falls in the elderly. The system’s ability to monitor and record changes in the center of gravity compares favorably to equipment costing thousands of dollars more.

The American Council on Exercise is also sponsoring a study of the Wii Fit. Research sponsored by the organization and published last summer showed that using the Wii sports package without the balance board, participants could burn anywhere from 3 to 7 calories per minute, with boxing being the most intense and golf the least. By comparison, real boxing burns about 10 calories a minute, with the risk of losing lots of your teeth and sustaining a head injury, while actual golf may require country-club membership and burns about 4 calories a minute.

The Wii Fit’s decidedly unpopular BMI calculations may soon be supplemented with more meaningful measurements — Popular Science reported in February that a patent application for using a “Wii-like controller” to record heart rate and blood pressure has been filed in Taiwan.

Nintendo is aware of the expanding interest in their balance platform — they’re debuting a service in Japan that will link users to health care providers who can provide guidance in progressing workouts.

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