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OXFORD - Consumer research suggests the Nintendo Wii Fit video game console was among this year's most popular Christmas gifts, but could it also be a way to improve overall family fitness? A University of Mississippi associate professor of health and exercise science is researching the possibility that the Nintendo Wii and other whole body movement game consoles could help families get more physical activity. If the systems do improve fitness, a byproduct could be a reduction in obesity, said Scott Owens, the professor tackling that question. "Obesity has become an epidemic in the United States, and one of the reasons is the adults and children are getting less physical activity," he said. "There has been an upswing in sales of whole body movement video games over the past few years. This potentially could help family fitness, so we are looking at the research aspect to see if family fitness improves after purchasing one of these whole body movement game consoles." The six-month study began this fall and is following eight families in the Oxford area who have been loaned a Nintendo Wii to use for three months. The study is broken into two parts so that each family's fitness is charted during three months without a Nintendo Wii in the home and three months with the game system in the home. During that time, each family is evaluated through a number of different fitness measurements, including aerobic fitness, balance, physical activity and body composition. In addition, each family's fitness before the study was measured through the use of a device that charted the families' movement and physical activity over a period of five days. Software on the game consoles uses individual profiles to keep track of how much each family member uses the games and how much movement is involved in that use. At the end of the study, researchers plan to use the software, along with fitness measurements, to determine if the games made a difference in each family's overall fitness. According to PCWorld magazine, this year the Nintendo Wii was the top-selling item on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when many consumers begin their Christmas shopping. Using statistics from online sites eBay and Pricegrabber.com, the magazine reported the Wii passed the mark of 7 million consoles sold. Michelle Aten, who works in UM's National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law, said her family purchased their Nintendo Wii last Christmas because they wanted a more immersive, interactive gaming experience that included games for the entire family. Though Aten's family is not part of the study, she said they do play as a family and have four controllers for games that support many players. Aten is unsure whether the system itself can improve family fitness, because she said much of that depends on finding a physically demanding game that appeals to a wide age range. "For example, I may be interested in Wii Fit and enjoy the overall fitness goals but maybe my daughter would only be entertained by the hula hoops," she explained. "My boys may find the Wii Outdoor Challenge fun, but would I want to run on a mat for a mile with a simulated terrain?" She believes the game system could improve family fitness, but it would require coordination and discipline to encourage everyone to participate. "So far, I have not seen any physically demanding Wii games that innately trump every other type of game that competes for our family's gaming time," she said. Aten predicts that improvements in gaming technology could close the competitive gap with "couch potato games" by creating games that, for example, might require the player to walk and run through the game, as well as make moves to sneak around, duck and take cover. The consoles for Owens' study were purchased by the School of Applied Sciences, and results of the study are expected to be finalized in late spring 2009. Marie Barnard, applied sciences assistant dean, said the school supplied the consoles for the study because it is a great example of the important research conducted by faculty seeking applied solutions to real world problems. "We are pleased to support research of this nature and continue to seek ways to facilitate faculty research that improves the health and well being of our community," she said. For more information on the School of Applied Sciences, click here. For more information on the Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation Management, click here.
Jennifer Farish/University of Mississippi