Sofa sitting v calorie burning: can gaming really make you fit?

Gaming tends to be associated with a lack of physical exercise, but can consoles actually be used to improve fitness?

That certainly seemed to be the aim of Nintendo Wii when it was launched in November 2006, adding at least an element of exertion to a pastime more associated with sitting down.

Since its release, around 100 million Wii units have been sold worldwide, making it the fifth most best-selling gaming console of all time.

Wii Sports is often used as an example of gaming with fitness benefits, with its animated versions of popular sports that can be actually played in ways which burn calories.

Unlike other hand-held gaming controllers that only exercise fingers and thumbs, the Wii Sports control can be used as a golf club, tennis racket, bowling arm, baseball bat, pitching arm or boxing gloves with a martial arts nun-chuck connected to the remote.

In addition, the Wii balance board accessory is claimed to provide users with a core workout, with the emphasis on controlled movements. There are several dozen fitness training-related programmes and activities available to take part in on the board, including yoga, dancing, surfing, water skiing and ski jumping.


So Wii Sport is now helping to keep a second generation of users more active than those playing games which are chiefly about hand-eye co-ordination – or so you might think.

The rise of gaming in the past few decades has coincided with concerns over growing levels of childhood obesity.

Data released last year by the UK’s national child measurement programme (NCMP) showed the proportion of overweight and obese children in reception year (aged 4-5) in 2017-18 was 22.4% (equal to 136,586 children); for year 6 children, it was 34.3% (equal to 197,888 children) compared to 31.6% in 2006-07.

There is some debate over whether childhood obesity has really reached epidemic proportions, and whilst the problem is largely attributed to poor diet, some people argue that it is also partly down too many kids spending too long on their consoles.

The argument runs that children are spending more time indoors staring at screens and less outdoors engaging in vigorous exercise, whilst parents become more risk-averse about their offspring getting into danger in the big, bad outside world.

This might ring true for many, but there is also research which claims that ‘exergaming’ of the type promoted by Wii Sports and other consoles can have beneficial effects.

A 2018 study by Louisiana State University in the United States showed overweight and obese children become fitter if they regularly use such games, while earlier research reported by the National Obesity Forum claimed children were six times more likely to take to exercise if it involved a video game.

‘No significant difference’

On the other side of this debate, the Daily Mail reported on a randomised controlled trial carried out to examine the activity levels in children who were given a new Wii console with either active or inactive games.

The children wore an accelerometer, which was used to record their movements over a 13-week period, with monitoring in the the first, sixth, seventh and 12th weeks.

The research shows that merely giving children access to active video games does not produce a significant difference in activity compared with children given inactive games.

It pointed out, however, that the study did not assess the impact of providing active games along with some instruction on the amount of time they should spend playing them.

The researchers further suggested that the children in the active game group may have compensated for any increased activity during playing the games by decreasing their activity throughout the rest of the day.

Brisk walk

If you do opt for Wii workouts, experts say to be sure to get your heart rate up to 70 percent of its maximum. Also, you will need to exercise for at least 30 minutes, three times a week.

According to, A small study of women using the Wii Fit found the amount of exercise they got from doing so was the equivalent of a “brisk walk.” So if you never take brisk walks, Wii Fit may be a good idea…

The Independent quoted a study involving 1,000 British and Irish parents of children aged up to seven, conducted by Persil, which found three quarters have used a screen to entertain their youngsters so they can get on with other tasks.

But six in 10 admit to concerns that this behaviour, while convenient, could negatively affect their child’s creative thinking and ability to problem solve.

So while there is a case for arguing that console-based exercise is surely better than none at all, the debate around how much screen-time children should be allowed (via gaming, phones, tablets, etc.) will continue.

Feature image by faseextra; wakeboarding image courtesy of Chris Doward, both via Flickr Creative Commons under licences CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and CC BY 2.0 respectively.