Can video games help you stay fit?

with advice from Nicole Puzio, PT, DPT, OCS
and Mary Lazarski-Stout, PT, DPT

Can video games help you stay fit?

When the Wii gaming system was introduced in 2006, the video game market was forever changed. No longer did playing a video game mean sitting on the couch and exercising your thumbs — and nothing else. The Wii, and other movement-based gaming systems like it (notably the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3), allows players to get off that couch and break a sweat.

While nothing is better than traditional exercise, outdoors or in, such games are much more fitness-friendly than conventional, non-movement based video games. Nicole Puzio, a physical therapist at Conshohocken Physical Therapy (a Physiquality network clinic in Pennsylvania), points out that “those participating may improve hand to eye coordination, as well as reaction times.” One recent study of the use of such games in PE classes found that student participation more than doubled when some schools used games like Dance Dance Revolution and Just Dance to encourage student activity. These games have also been shown to increase energy expenditure and heart rate, proving their benefits over traditional video games.

Wii Fit games incorporate yoga, balance, core strengthening and coordination.Nicole says that Wii Fit games incorporate numerous movements, including yoga, balance, core strengthening, leg strengthening, coordination, and reaction times. The benefits of standard Wii games depend on how much energy the player exerts; a study in 2011 found that “at best, Wii games appear to result in moderate increases in [energy expenditure], and, at worst, [the authors] compared the [expenditure] of Wii Tennis with that of folding laundry or driving a car.” However, Nicole agrees with the study’s finding that when the games are done for longer periods of time, or players master the games’ activities, users increase their heart rate and burn calories, and they may even increase some muscle strength.

Movement-based video games are not just for the younger, active set. Physical and occupational therapists have found that they can help patients improve balance, let younger patients have fun during therapy, and focus patients with such conditions as Parkinson’s and cerebral palsy on improving movement. Some PTs use sports-related games as a way to bridge patients from rehabilitation to returning to their sport. Nicole notes that elderly populations benefit from movement-based video games both physically and emotionally. For any demographic, she adds, “It is a form of exercise that can also be entertaining, which allows for those who deem exercise as hard work to actually start an exercise program.”

Central Penn Physical Therapy has developed programs capitalizing on what they call 'Wii-habilitation.'Central Penn Physical Therapy, a Physiquality network clinic with two locations in Pennsylvania, has developed programs capitalizing on what they call “Wii-habilitation.” Owner Mary Lazarski-Stout uses the Wii Fit Plus balance games to teach patients how to shift their weight more effectively (and safely), while reducing the risk and fear of falls and improving motor function. The programs incorporate Wii accessories, like the balance board and mat, plus hand weights available in the clinic.

One of the best benefits of using such a program is that it is adaptable for just about anyone, Mary says. The clinic uses it with patients with total joint replacements, neurological impairments, a fear of falling, and even spinal disorders. She notes that modifications are easy to make for each individual patient; for example, she’ll have some patients sit instead of stand while playing the bowling or tennis games, or have some balance patients start out by sitting on the balance board, working their way to standing on it.

Mary also points out that such games encourage motor learning, which drives the brain to learn. Because each game is goal-oriented and interactive, the games encourage any user (in rehabilitation or at home) to improve her score through better balance, more consistent movement and quicker responses.

Regardless of their role in fitness and therapy, movement-based video games shouldn’t take the place of regular workouts or traditional physical therapy when needed. If you think such games might help you stay fit or improve after an illness or injury, consult with a physical therapist to find out whether they’re right for you. Use our locator to find a therapist at a Physiquality network location in your area.

Mary Lazarski-Stout Mary Lazarski-Stout, PT, DPT, is the founder and owner of Central Penn Physical Therapy, a Physiquality network clinic with two locations in Pennsylvania. An innovative practitioner and instructor, Mary also teaches as a guest clinical instructor for the Doctorate of Physical Therapy program at Lebanon Valley College.
Nicole Puzio Nicole Puzio, PT, DPT, OCS is a senior physical therapist at Conshohocken Physical Therapy, a Physiquality network clinic in Pennsylvania. An active member of the American Physical Therapy Association, Nicole has received specialized training in evaluative and treatment methods, vestibular rehabilitation and sports medicine, and she recently completed her certification to become an orthopedic clinical specialist.

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For further information:

Quinn, M. Introduction of active video gaming into the middle school curriculum as a school-based childhood obesity intervention. Journal of Pediatric Healthcare, January 2013.

Wii: Video games more than just games. Conshohocken Physical Therapy, November 13, 2012.

Manfuso, Lauren Glenn. More than just fun and games. Potential Magazine (a publication of the Kennedy Krieger Institute), November 2, 2012.

Active video games have exercise-like effects in kids: Study. HealthDay, September 24, 2012.

Taylor, Matthew J.D., Darren McCormick, Teshk Shawis, Rebecca Impson, and Murray Griffin. Activity-promoting gaming systems in exercise and rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, 2011.

Video games and exercise: Can gaming on the Wii or Xbox replace traditional workouts? Huffington Post, December 21, 2011.

Wii bowling: Seniors get fit with the latest Wii craze. ADVANCE for Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine, July 1, 2011.

On balance. ADVANCE for Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine, February 8, 2011.

Pigford, Tony and A. Williams Andrews. Feasibility and benefit of using the Nintendo Wii Fit for balance rehabilitation in an elderly patient experiencing recurring falls. Journal of Student Physical Therapy Research, 2010.

Green, Sue Stanley. Get set and play. ADVANCE for Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine, November 15, 2010.

Pittman, Genevra. Doctor’s orders: Play video games., December 5, 2008.

The material and information contained on this Web site is for information only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or consultation.

Consult your personal physician before beginning any exercise program or self-treatment.