Homing in on fitness

Two years ago the simple exercise game Wii Fit showed gaming could be good for you – and promptly sold more than 20m copies worldwide. Now it is being challenged by the next generation of physical interaction games; Microsoft’s Kinect controller was launched with much fanfare last week. Working with the Xbox 360 console, its infra-red sensor follows 48 different body points to track your movements, then uses this information to control your on-screen character.

Unsurprisingly many of the games available are fitness based and promise a complete living room exercise regime. But are they any good? And are they any better than the Wii Fit? I took a Kinect and a bunch of games to fitness trainer Matt Roberts to find out.

We started with EA Sports Active 2, which has more than 70 different exercises. Users can pick their favourites, or go with one of the pre-set routines, concentrating on different body areas, or even on training for specific sports such as mountain biking. It’s a much more exhaustive setup than Wii Fit and can measure and display your heart rate thanks to a monitor that straps to your forearm which sends information to the console.

I start with the football exercises and enjoy kicking balls into the net to hit a target. Then I attempt a task in which I have to jog on the spot, lifting my knees as high as possible while my on-screen character sprints around the pitch. I’m going as fast as I can, but the chap on the TV is trotting about without a care in the world. Roberts just nods his approval: “Wii Fit was good for the time,” he says, “it got people active, it made you think about technique, but it was very limited in terms of tracking movements. There were lots of ways of cheating it, and it couldn’t give you a cardio workout. This is different.” He gestures toward the heart rate display, which is rising at an alarming rate while my onscreen character dawdles toward the finishing line. Kinect can see exactly what I’m doing, and it is not impressed.

I quickly move on to mountain biking, or, as I now call it, “relentless physical punishment”. You guide your cyclist along a hilly course by holding a squat position on flat sections and then sprinting on the spot to get up hills. You can also jump to perform impressive stunts, but by halfway round, I have lost all ability to show off. On screen, my heart rate has rocketed up to 178. “You’re definitely getting a good cardio workout here,” encourages Roberts, while clearly hoping I am not going to die in his fitness centre.

With its bright, fun graphics and an emphasis on competing against onscreen characters to improve performance, this is the most conventional game among the titles. Roberts’s conclusion? “It’s really hard to get cardio to work well in a living room setting and this manages to do it.”

Your Shape by Ubisoft, meanwhile, takes a more thoughtful approach. It starts by depicting your body on screen in a relaxing environment as a calm, female voice introduces the key features. This game has a similar emphasis on a fully-rounded workout, but it adds yoga and pilates. Mercifully, Roberts now decides he wants a go, and gets stuck into the warmup. He is impressed by the game’s technicality – a complex graphical display in the top right corner gives exact feedback on your movements. It does, however, attempt to correct Roberts’s positioning a couple of times, even though he’s convinced he’s doing it correctly. There was also a moment during EA Sports Active 2 where Roberts says my action was all wrong but the game disagreed.

Could these games damage people by suggesting the wrong positions? Roberts is dismissive: “Some trainers get very anal about posture, but for most people, with these sorts of movements, it’s unlikely you’re going to hurt yourself. And if you’re playing this over multiple sessions, you’ll start to feel for yourself where it’s working and where it’s hurting where it shouldn’t be.”

Importantly, even the Kinect games that aren’t strictly about exercise may accidentally make you fit. To warm down, we have a quick bash at Kinect Sports, a fun multi-event sport game that allows two players to take part at a time. After the sprinting (Roberts wins, surprisingly) and the Javelin (I win!), I’m getting out of breath again – but it’s good fun. Elsewhere, the best Kinect title so far is Dance Central. It’s a proper dance training game, and just like in Fame, if you want to master the routine to Poker Face you pay in sweat (and also dignity).

Finally, our session is over. So, can games be good for you? Roberts is keen to stress these titles can’t replace proper supervised fitness training, but are a useful backup. As soon as I’m alone in the room I reach guiltily into my dusty gym bag and pull out a bottle of Mountain Dew, the caffeine-enriched refreshment of choice for the tired gamer. I look back into the Kinect’s beady lens. I think I see pity.

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