Introducing the Coastal Point Health-Tech Challenge


In our recent series of health stories on technologically-savvy ways to get (and stay) in shape, I noted the expected release of the Wii Fit game and balance board peripheral this month. Well, May 22 arrived late last week, and with it my very own copy of the game and my very own balance board.

Coastal Point Illustration • Shaun M. Lambert: Point News Editor M. Patricia Titus got her Wii Fit on May 22, and began her fitness challenge to lose some weight and get into shape.Coastal Point Illustration • Shaun M. Lambert
Point News Editor M. Patricia Titus got her Wii Fit on May 22, and began her fitness challenge to lose some weight and get into shape.

So, as part of our big master plan here at the Coastal Point to help our readers stay on top of technology trends and get themselves in top shape… Well, no — truthfully, it’s more that I needed to get my butt out from in front of the computer, and I’m as good a guinea pig as anyone to see whether a video game can really turn a mouse potato into something less closely resembling a fluffy two-hour baked potato topped with sour cream and butter.

So, here it is: the first part of the Coastal Point Health-Tech Challenge, in which I subject myself to regular exercise under the guidance of those brilliant people who brought us the Wii game console, its interactive controllers, and their diminutive sibling, the Nintendo DS.

We kick off this first week of the challenge with a statement of goals: to drop that baby weight I put back on, and then some. A lot of some.

Despite all the promises, the brief triumphs of mind over mozzarella, all the yoga and Pilates videos purchased, the notations about the calorie-burning effects of chasing a toddler around the house, the exercise equipment laid in, a great love of swimming, my longtime focus on (somewhat) healthy eating and more than 15 years of a mostly vegetarian diet, there’s quite a lot to lose here.

Not the least of which is the potential of a shortened lifespan and a limited ability to kick around a soccer ball, ride a bike around the neighborhood and generally set a good example for my son. I swear, the startlingly immanent arrival of my 20th high school reunion next year has nothing to do with it. (Truly, since I have no plans to go.) But all of these things add up to a wake-up call that has me more determined than usual to finally succeed at the fitness game. Literally.

So, before it’s too late for many or all of those things, I’m putting my goals out there for everyone to see, with the idea that I’ll be able to buckle down all the more to this challenge and that, maybe, someone else will benefit from what I go through. If nothing else, in the way of getting a thorough review for a pricey new video game.

That is Part 1 of the Coastal Point Health-Tech Challenge: Use Wii Fit to see if I can improve my fitness level in the coming months. As we all known, muscle burns calories and revs up your metabolism, so I’m going to be focusing primarily on moving from little or no exercise (thank you, demanding schedule) to a modest amount of both aerobic and strength/toning exercise on a daily basis.

While I’ve had some success with dieting in the past, I’m not aiming for any major dietary changes at least at the start. That’s, in part, to see the direct impact of adding exercise as guided by Wii Fit, and partly to ease into what I hope are going to be lifelong lifestyle changes.

Going back to the idea of the Health-Tech Challenge, the plan at the moment is to add monitoring of other physical activity with My Fitness Coach, when it is released later this summer for the Nintendo DS, complete with a pedometer peripheral that will track my walking habits and encourage more steps in my day.

Depending on how things progress and how soon I settle in with this new way of life, I’ll be looking at some dietary modifications (or at least better monitoring) later in the summer and into the fall, using technology to keep better track of my diet.

All along the way, I’ll be keeping track of my progress, with monthly updates in our To Your Health! section and more frequent mini-updates online on CoastalPoint.com, under the Coastal Point Health-Tech Challenge tag.

You, dear reader, are invited to follow along as closely as you wish. I can use all the support I can get and will appreciate any kind words you have to offer. (The unkind words are the things that will be keeping me vague about my exact long-term goals.) If you’d like to join me, feel free to register on our Web site and check in with your own challenges, goals and progress in the comments to my online Challenge journal.

Speaking of goals: Goal 1 for Part 1 of our challenge is a loss of 22 pounds in the next three months. That’s just under 2 pounds per week — a healthy goal according to diet experts and something I’ve managed to attain in previous tries at weight loss. This is the goal I’ve set in Wii Fit, as part of my first use of the game, to which I will now introduce you.

The tools of the trade

Wii Fit is a brand new game for the ultra-popular Wii game console, created as a follow-up to some of the initial hype about the Wii that noted its potential boon to fitness when players started using the movement-sensing controllers to swing virtual racquets at on-screen tennis balls, roll virtual bowling balls down TV-based alleys and box against digital opponents.

A few sore muscles from my first days with the included Wii Sports game were all it took to convince me of the console’s potential for exercise. So I’ve been looking greatly forward to the release of Wii Fit and even pre-ordered the game with some of my economic stimulus payment.

The game comes with the usual game disc and its own peripheral: the balance board. The board basically looks like a double-wide home scale, minus the readout for your weight.

Upon starting up the game, you’re asked to create a profile. If you already have a Mii avatar on your Wii, you’ll be able to use that as your avatar in Wii Fit, and it will exercise along with you, dressed in its own cute little workout togs — a Wii Fit T-shirt and pants as unfortunately white as the barefoot-only balance board itself.

You’ll do your first body test as part of creating your profile, measuring not only your weight but your body mass index (BMI), based on your weight and height. This has been the major controversy of Wii Fit thus far, since BMI is no longer considered a good measure of fitness by most fitness experts. BMI is notoriously inaccurate in measuring fitness in the very young and the very fit, as well as those of us who have big bones or significant muscle mass.

While you would ideally be able to rely on Wii Fit to give you an accurate idea of your fitness level (and most people still can, within reason), this is the point where I remind you to talk to your doctor before starting on any fitness regimen. They can give you a better estimate of your percentage of body fat, as could many of the newer scales available on the market today. It’s a feature that might have been a great inclusion in the balance board with Wii Fit, but it’s not there and you should be aware of it. They can also give you solid guidelines for your own goals, as well as things to watch out for while exercising.

One of the goals you will need to set during your profile creation and initial body tests is any weight loss (or gain) goals. You can change these goals every two weeks, so if you want to scale back later, you can do so. In my case, I’m set for 22 pounds over three months, while my son will be looking at maintaining his current weight over two weeks, to be adjusted for normal growth over the long term.

A major focus of Wii Fit is balance, as indicated by the “balance board” designation. Daily tests include balance tests to help you become more aware of your posture and to avoid any unconscious and unhealthy tendency to carry more of your weight on one side of your body than the other. And many of the most interesting and engrossing games in Wii Fit call for you to control game elements by finely controlling your balance.

When you do a balance test as part of your daily body test (it’s optional, if you’re in a hurry), you’ll also be given your Wii Fit Age, calculated from your real age and the balance tests. The goal, obviously, is to match or better your real age by demonstrating balance at least as good as what you should have at your age. Your Wii Fit Age is the challenge (or reward) for giving more focus on your balance, which can be improved by strengthening your muscles to give yourself better posture and body control. Thus, you get an enticement to exercise and improve your overall fitness, too.

The main selling point of Wii Fit is that you’ll be exercising by playing games, just as was discovered to be a big hit with Wii Sports, which includes its own Fitness Age mark. The Wii Fit “exercises” are divided into balance games, aerobics, strength training and yoga, many of which use the balance board to detect how well you’re following the directions, keeping your balance and keeping pace with the prescribed rhythm.

Balance games include Soccer Heading, in which you lean left, right and center to “head” soccer balls kicked at you by your Mii teammates (your friends and family in cartoon avatar form) and duck cleats and deceptively black-and-white panda bears; Ski Slalom, in which you lean left and right to shift your skis down a virtual slalom slope as quickly as possible and without missing gates; and Ski Jump, in which you carefully balance forward and center with bent knees as you pick up speed down the virtual slope, only to extend your knees quickly and leap, as perfectly balanced as possible, to make a lengthy jump off the ramp.

As with all of the exercises in Wii Fit, minutes of time put in go into a “piggy bank” that collects them and then unlocks new games and new levels of existing games.

As you unlock more balance games, there’s Table Tilt, in which you and your family and friends become balls in a marble game, with the goal of carefully tilting the board underneath them to drop each through holes to a new and harder level below; Tightrope walk, in which you balance to walk between two buildings and jump over snapping traps; Balance Bubble, in which you ride a fragile bubble down a river, trying to avoid bursting it on the pointy banks; Snowboard Slalom, in which you turn the board sideways and pretend it’s a snowboard, balancing front and back; and Penguin Slide, in which your avatar is embarrassingly dressed in a penguin suit and you slip and slide from side to side on an iceberg, catching fish and trying not to lose time by falling in the water.

These are the games that the kids — and adults — will love, especially in a group, even though it’s a one-player activity. I’ve got a 2-year-old whose first thoughts in the morning are now “Wii Fit” and “Table Tilt.” Even if he’s not playing Wii Fit himself at that moment, he’s fascinated as long as someone is.

In Aerobics, you’ll start off with Hula Hoop, where you’ll wiggle your hips inside virtual hoops and catch some thrown at you; Basic Step, which will challenge your rhythm and coordination with a simple step-aerobics routine; Basic Run, in which you’ll keep a calorie-burning pace with a Mii-style guide in a two-minute run around a virtual island, your Wii remote in your pocket or hand to track your speed of movement; and 2-Player Run, the only multi-player activity in Wii Fit, which sadly does not track your fitness buddy’s exertions other than as a guest but still provides an extra element of fun.

Putting in some time with these activities will give you Fitness Credits, which open up such activities as Super Hula Hoop, in which you’ll be challenged to three minutes of hip-hooping calorie burning; Advanced Step; and Rhythm Boxing — a take on aerobic-style kick-boxing using the same Wii remote and nunchuk setup as Wii Sports’ boxing, plus the balance board to track your footwork; as well as longer routes for running around and across the virtual island.

Less engrossing are the game’s strength and yoga exercises, in which you are led through traditional exercises and yoga poses by a virtual trainer. You can pick a male or female trainer, as per your own preference. They’ll demonstrate the exercises from the front or back, so you know how they should be done, and the balance board will keep track of whether you’ve lost your balance during the Tree pose, dropped your hips while doing push-ups or simply given up.

The yoga training was smart enough to sense that I’d done many of these exercises before, praising my balance during the Sun Salutation and overconfidently declaring me a “Yoga Master.” But it also knew my balance is no longer what it was in the Tree pose and recommended I keep practicing. My god-daughter didn’t get away with dropping her hips on her push-ups. It called her on it at the end of the exercise.

While running through the yoga and strength exercises isn’t as exciting as the balance and aerobics games and likely won’t entice the kids to play along that often, Nintendo has smartly made its virtual trainers warm and enthusiastic, without having them be intimidating. They encourage, without beating training goals into you. They also have a few surprises in store, such as the days when your regular trainer “has the day off” and the trainer of the other gender substitutes, or the minor variations in their hairstyles over time that the detail-oriented may notice.

Make no mistake, this is not really a substitute for a real trainer or some knowledge of how to properly do these exercises. The balance board will catch you if your balance isn’t correct for the exercise, or if you’re moving more than you should be at a given point or overall, but it can’t tell you if your posture isn’t quite right or if you shouldn’t be attempting a given exercise with your bad knees. However, if you can follow the demonstrations to the T and have consulted with a doctor or trainer to ensure it’s safe, you should be ready to take on a Wii Fit workout.

Also helping you along with your new fitness regimen is an ultra-cute cartoon version of the Wii balance board, which is your host for your daily body tests, as well as ongoing balance challenges. It offers more of Wii Fit’s enthusiastic but non-threatening guidance, with daily fitness tips. It will chirpily tell you you’re overweight, too, but somehow that’s a little less troubling coming from a cartoon balance board than from a real person.

Along the way, the game will track your weight and BMI, as well as your balance test results and time spent working out, so you can follow along with your progress on a graph. Gain a few pounds? It will quiz you on the possible causes, causing you to rethink your eating habits. You’ll also get inquiries about your sleep habits, whether you’ve eaten breakfast, etc. And while you’re exercising, you’ll be prompted to stay hydrated, as well as to take a 10- to 15-minute break after you’ve been working out for a while.

Additionally, the tracking area provides the ability to track additional exercise that you get, whether that’s going for a swim, taking a long walk, mowing the lawn or cleaning the house. You’ll select from three activity levels and enter the time spent on that activity, allowing you to factor in all the calorie burning that you’re doing, inside Wii Fit and out.

The entire Wii Fit package is a great motivator for improving your basic fitness. It’s not going to heavily challenge people who are already highly fit, but if you’re having trouble fitting in a half-hour or so of moderate exercise, the additional motivation of the games and prompts for daily tests may help get you in the habit. Further, the fun, interactive and widely appealing aspects of the Wii Fit games makes the idea of a workout something that can easily become a family habit, with multiple generations getting involved and keeping each other motivated.

I’m also looking forward to some of the upcoming games that will utilize the balance board. We Ski is already out, with expectations for an upcoming cheerleading game, boxing game, Skate It skateboarding game, and sequels to the popular Boogie rhythm and Raving Rabbids games, to also use the board.

The Wii Fit package, with game and balance board, retails for around $90. If you’re visiting local arcades, consider saving up a summer’s worth of tickets won by the family, because I spotted Wii Fit going for 30,000 tickets in Rehoboth Beach this weekend. That sighting prompted a positive review from another early adopter who happened to be in the arcade at that moment. Her family has been equally enthusiastic about the game, so it appears to be a hit.

That said, here's a detailed journal of my thoughts on Wii Fit through the first week.