The Great Wii Fit-Off: Gamer vs. Trainer

In the challenge of the century, PopSci pits a videogame-phobic sportswriter against a professional trainer. Whose Mii will reign supreme?

I’m not much of a “gamer”. (In fact, I’m not even entirely sure that’s the preferred nomenclature to describe one skilled at Halo and aroused by watching Grand Theft Auto.) The only video game system I’ve ever owned is the original Nintendo which still sits proudly attached to my television with a quarter holding RBI Baseball in place (undefeated through much of college). But, I do cover sports and its broadly defined intersection with technology, so when Nintendo began advertising Wii Fit, I felt obliged to turn off Tecmo Bowl and see just what the past twenty years has done to 64-bit technology and what it meant to the world of fitness.

There have been 786 reviews of the Wii and Wii Fit by men and women far more qualified than myself to compare its gaming merits to Dance Dance Revolution (never played), Guitar Hero (dabbled once in Best Buy) and the best of PS2 (never touched it). PopSci‘s own gaming guru gave an excellent review of the system. But Wii Fit, and to a degree the Wii, isn’t only intended for Donkey Kong prodigies.

A picture of a 40-something woman and a 70-something man are plastered on the box for Wii Fit–this is not your child’s Nintendo. While a few decades younger than the aforementioned, my gaming acumen makes me uniquely qualified to review this, and only this, system.

To supplement review #787 I recruited Mike Behnken, MS, CSCS a certified trainer and founder of askthetrainer.com, to step through the exercises with two goals in mind: 1. Let an expert tell me where this thing should fit in an overall fitness routine 2. Find out how accurate the board is at quantifying ‘fitness’. For the latter we figured a competition between a man paid handsomely to stay in shape and a man paid marginally to sit idly on a couch should suffice. If the board can’t determine who’s in better shape then we have a problem. Exercises are split into four different groups: Yoga, Strength Training, Aerobics and Balance Games. Certain exercises are unlocked based on time spent, so we sampled only from those available on your first day. On the next page is documentation of the battle complete with comments from Behnken about goal number one. We even compiled a list of things we’d like to see changed and methods to supplement the Wii for those determined to avoid natural sunlight.

Initial Assessment

Users begin by building their Mii and entering their age, height, and an estimate of the weight of their attire. At the heart of Wii Fit is the board’s ability to independently measure the force applied to the left and right side of the board. The initial evaluation quantifies your weight and then asks you to stand completely still while it calculates whether you tend to lean in any direction by measuring your Center of Balance (COB). The weight and height are then used to calculate your Body Mass Index and categorize you as underweight, normal, overweight, or obese. This branding has sparked uproar amongst parents not happy about their kid getting labeled obese by a machine. Your Wii Fit Age is then magically determined from an unknown combination of all these factors (complete with a drum roll). In the tale of the tape, we find our first questionable result. The system suggests Behnken has the fitness level or a 43 year old and that I have the fitness level of a 42 year old (you decide which is less likely).

Behnken | Zarda
Age: 30 | 28
Height: 5′ 11 | 6′ 1
Weight: 191 | 190
BMI: 28.31 | 25.24
COB: R: 50.8, L: 49.2 | R: 49.7, L: 50.3
Wii Fit Age: 43 (+13) | 42 (+14)

Behnken wasn’t excited about the reliance on BMI either (and not because mine was lower). The measure is merely equal to your weight divided by your height squared (so don’t lie about your height) and doesn’t take age, muscle mass or sex into account.

“If you look at an individual you can’t use BMI. If you’re looking at comparing populations it’s okay but it’s statistically insignificant for an individual,” said Behnken. “It’s the oldest thing in the book. If you have a body builder they’re going to be obese according to BMI. It doesn’t take into account muscle mass at all.”

There’s also a lengthy introduction about posture and balance that Behnken enjoyed more.

“That’s definitely the current thing in fitness. Just focusing on pushups and squats is old, so now it’s all about focusing on posture. We’re sitting down a lot more and so you get an imbalance that affects all the muscles in the body. You’re body is a big chain and if you have a weak link, it’s a problem. Ten years from now it will be something else but that’s what’s selling right now,” said Behnken.

With the assessment done the system prompts you to set a weight loss goal in pounds and weeks. Submitting anything tougher than three pounds per week receives a warning about “rebound”.

“I like the fact that they add that,” said Behnken. “The rebound effect is a big problem with people. They lose the weight and gain it back. It’s good that it tells you that you can’t lose 50 lbs in a week. The American College of Sports Medicine says you should aim for one to two pounds per week, so that’s close.”

With the goals set (I’ll need to lose 20 pounds to get to my so-called ideal weight), the system lets you pick a male or female trainer to talk you through the exercises. “Typical trainer,” laughs Behnken. “Same guy you’d see in a 24-hour fitness club brochure.”

Before exiting the initial assessment users play a quick balance game where participants must apply more or less weight to each foot and try to keep a red bar inside a blue area. Each ’round’ the target area decreases in size making it more difficult. While both of us successfully reached the same round, Behnken did so in less time so I’ll reluctantly concede the win. Behnken 1, Zarda 0

Benhken | Zarda
Round 1: 5.84 s | 6.01 s
Round 2: 5.56 s | 5.85 s
Round 3: 6.74 s | 6.25 s
Round 4: 7.21 s | 8.04 s
Round 5: did not finish | did not finish
Total: 25.35 s | 26.15 s

Yoga

It was tough tell which of us were less excited about the yoga exercises. It’s not something he teaches and my only exposure is staring fondly through a glass window at absurdly flexible spandex-clad women. I did hope my lanky unmuscular build might actually provide some benefit. Sadly, it didn’t. The score awarded appears to be based on your ability to maintain balance through the pose which we both found accurate and worthwhile (a little red dot tracks your COB). The trainer offers some decent advice according to Behnken, complete with encouragement to visualize the pose. “All I’m visualizing is falling over,” said Behnken. You and me both my friend. Behnken 2, Zarda 0.

Behnken | Zarda
Warrior Pose: 97 points (yoga master)| 73 (yoga trainer)
Tree Pose: 68 points (yoga novice) | 69 (yoga novice)
Total: 165 | 142

Strength

Without going Tanya Harding, my only prayer in this was that Wii Fit wasn’t accurate enough to notice his guns and my twigs. We started with push-ups and side planks. Lucky for me newcomers are limited to just six reps. Behnken made it look a lot easier (and likely wasn’t sore the next day), but I got mine done. He noted that hands have to be extremely close together when pushing on the board, which would work out your arms but do little for your chest. He also liked that the trainer kept you at a nice steady pace. We weren’t sure how the board was scoring this but we tied, so I didn’t care.

Lunges were up next. One foot was kept on the board and the system accurately measured the force pushing down. Behnken liked the advice of the trainer regarding technique but noted that bad form actually increased your score.

“It’s saying to keep your front leg at 90 degrees which is correct, but if you do it improperly you can get a higher score because when your knee comes forward you put more weight on it. But, that’s not the right way to do it,” said Behnken.

Despite my attempts to cheat, Behnken still took me down. This is getting embarrassing. Behnken 3, Zarda 0.

Behnken | Zarda
Pushups: 91 (bodybuilder) | 91 (bodybuilder)
Lunges: 95 (bodybuilder) | 65 (exercise novice)
Total: 186 | 156

Cardio

We started with Basic Step. It was appropriately named to say the least.

“This is like senior citizen type stuff. If this step were two feet high this would be a good cardio exercise. Right now, it’s like a weak version of Dance Dance Revolution. It all depends on how coordinated you are. I played Dance Dance Revolution and I was done in ten seconds,” said Behnken.

No excuses Behnken. I don’t play Dance Dance either and I’ve never taken ballroom lessons but this one was all mine. The system checks when you step on and off and how synchronized you are with the prompts. Neither of us felt much of a hike in heart rate, but I’ll take what I can.

Next was a hula-hoop competition (less the actual hula hoop). Essentially it gets you to shake your hips while monitoring your rhythm in swaying left to right. I won a hula-hoop competition when I was eight, so even a personal trainer didn’t stand a chance. Neither of us were gasping for breath, but who cares, I’m on the board. Behnken 3, Zarda 1.

Behnken | Zarda
Basic Step: 160 (calorie roaster) | 233 (calorie roaster)
Hula Hoop: 64 (calorie burner) | 77 (calorie burner)
Total: 224 | 310

Balance Games

This entire category was appropriately named. The trainer is ditched and along with it hint of getting healthy disappears and is replaced by old-fashioned video gaming. There was a slight learning curve so we added our scores for two rounds of attempts. I hand picked the soccer and dominated thanks to my JV high school career. Balls are fired at you and a simple lean to the left or right will let your Mii make contact with the ball (while avoiding other projectiles).Sadly I grew up in Florida and had little chance in the Slalom Skiing and Ski Jump. Final Score, Behnken 4, Zarda 1.

Behnken | Zarda
Soccer Heading: 75 | 156
Slalom Skiing: 2:23 | 3:10 (lower is better)
Ski Jump: 319 | 249 (higher is better)

Final Review

Wii Fit starts by telling you that it will “help you achieve your fitness goals”. Assessing the technology depends a lot on your interpretation of the word “help”. There’s no doubt that spending time on board is better than spending time on the couch. There’s also no doubt that it’s not enough by itself to get you to the lofty goals it allows you to set.

“I like it. I think it’s a good for people to do. There’s nothing negative about it but if someone is trying to make it there only form of exercise, I think it’s not going to cut it,” said Behnken. “They’d have to spend six or seven hours with it a day to get big benefits.”

Too much time is spent clicking through menus and not enough exercises keep your heart consistently pumping. The ‘unopened’ exercises might have a few hidden gems but what we saw was limited.

“They need longer duration steady state cardio,” said Behnken. “You have to maintain an elevated heart rate for twenty minutes to get benefits. For getting a little better balance or strengthening your core and muscles, it’s not bad. But if you want to build ten pounds of muscle or lose twenty pounds of fat, it’s not going to help you.”

The ability to create or select an actual ‘workout’ that consisted of a series of exercises would be a big step. Exercising for 30 minutes straight without navigating menus seems like a simple software addition that would go a long way.

It would also be a big mistake for anyone to put much credence in the scoring or analysis provided by the system (despite the score of our competition). The reliance on BMI is dangerous and the board’s ability to truly quantify how well you’re doing an exercise is lacking significantly. Behnken noted it’s better to listen to the trainer than worry about your score. Not surprisingly the exercises labeled ‘games’ provide the best feedback on performance but don’t necessarily correlate with burning calories and building muscles.

Despite the limitations Behnken could see himself incorporating the system as an occasional entertaining quasi-fitness break for his clients. Behnken sees the elderly population as the best suited to use Wii Fit as their lone exercise device. Those significantly overweight are unfortunately the least appropriate to depend on the gadget. Kids under ten won’t understand or follow the trainer, but the balance games will keep their attention until the specific ski, snowboard and skateboard games are released later this year. There’s no timeline for a next generation board of software update. That should given Nintendo plenty of opportunity to incorporate our suggested changes [next page]. Until then anyone hoping to slim down a few inches should consider Behnken’s suggestions on supplementing the workout.

As for me, twenty pounds seems a bit ambitious, so I’m setting a goal of five. And, for the first time in a long time Duck Hunt, Mario Brothers and my special quarter might get the full summer off.

Behnken’s Suggestions for a Better System

Things Nintendo Should Add or Change

1. Allow users to easily compete against each other. You currently have to log out of one Mii and back into another eliminating any chance of multi-player workouts.
2. Add resistance bands that attach the board and measure the tension applied to each side. This opens up a whole bushel of new exercises.
3. Allow users to customize a ‘playlist’ that runs through multiple exercises without any breaks. This would eliminate excessive clicking between menus and repetitive intros that provide to much idle time.
4. Add a second pad allowing users to move between the pads and get a better workout.
5. Limit the reliance on BMI by including an Accumeasure or some other more appropriate measure of body fat percentage.
6. Adjust the technology to allow users to jump on the board, creating a whole new list of explosive training exercises.
7. Incorporate some form of a nutrition program.

Ways to Supplement Your Wii Fit Workout

1. Don’t just stand while clicking through menus, do jumping jacks or jog in place.
2. Put the Wii Fit on top of another sturdy step. This will get your heart pumping during the aerobic exercises.
3. Use a pair of dumbbells where appropriate or with your freehand while clicking through menus.
4. Use resistance bands with your arms during any of the step exercises.
5. Add extra arm or leg motions to the aerobic exercises.
6. Talk to a personal trainer about what’s right for you.