Exergaming, a fairly clunky combination of "exercise" and "gaming," has been a growing presence within the exercise industry for the last 10 years. More companies than ever are looking for a foothold in the exergaming marketplace, and the games themselves are beginning to move out of the living room, and into fitness clubs and schools. But can video games succeed in making the masses fit, when every other exercise trend has failed?
Certainly the exergaming genre is reaching a far wider audience than the fitness industry has in the past, with tens of millions of units sold. The variety of uses the games are put to is expanding as well. Exergames have been used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, and absenteeism among schoolkids who have access to exergames drops by an average of 50%.
Exergaming has several advantages over traditional exercise. It engages those who find traditional workouts tedious or repetitive. Like other video games, exergames encourages competition over time. A record or high score set by one person can be used as motivation for others later on in the day. Indeed, the ability of exergames to save not only scores, but to record and keep the biometric data of all who play, is one of the genre's biggest advantages. Participants have access to information that, even if available, has not been easy to record or access at a later date in other venues.
As with any other fitness tool, an exergame has to be used to be effective, and some studies have suggested that exergame play follows a pattern seen with most fitness equipment: a large amount of use when the experience is still new, followed by a steady decline. It's also been found that in many cases, the level of activity needed to play an exergame doesn't result in the same health benefits as an actual workout. This pattern will likely recur in any exergame unless the exercise portion of the game is outweighed by the game play itself. An exergame where you hike the Appalachian Trail may burn a few calories, but an exergame where you chase trolls down the Appalachian Trail with your sword will keep you exercising a lot longer.
The Role of Exergames
But to compare exergames to a workout is to miss the value of exergames. The vast majority of people using exergames weren't ever going to work out anyway. In the home, exergames aren't replacing exercise, they are replacing other video games. On average, an exergame will burn about twice as many calories as a sedentary video session.
Still, exergames alone are probably not enough to make the masses fit, as the rise in obesity seems to be related more to increasing caloric intake on the part of the public rather than decreasing physical activity. Exercise alone, even on the best exergames, can't fix a bad diet. Overall fitness, whether for you as and individual or for the public as a whole, is best served by a mix of diet and exercise. Exergames can help with an individual's activity level, but they can never be more than part of an overall fitness plan.