Health advocates have long decried video games for contributing to a sedentary culture. While those stereotypes might still hold true for some, many families' game consoles are fast becoming as suitable for the exercise room as for the den.
Microsoft's new Kinect peripheral for the popular Xbox 360 video game console uses the whole body as the controller and can be an effective—and fun—fitness tool. A camera tracks the player's body movements to manipulate the action on the screen. For example, in the boxing mode for the game Kinect Sports, you throw real punches that are mirrored by your onscreen avatar in a digital boxing ring. Other games allow you to dance, drive a car, or negotiate obstacle courses. The system forces users to be active, burning calories as they play.
The Kinect is just the latest innovation in motion-capture gaming. The Nintendo Wii, released in 2006, quickly became the nation's top-selling video game console because it appealed both to gamers and to families looking to stay active. The Wii and its competitor Move, which Sony released in September to use with its PlayStation 3, rely on handheld controllers to capture players' movements as they simulate playing games like tennis, ping-pong, or golf.
Fitness titles are among the bestsellers for these consoles. Wii Fit Plus, for instance, includes yoga, balance, and strength-training activities. Its electronic balance board can also track changes in weight and body mass index.
But some experts, like exercise physiologist Tom Holland of New Canaan, Conn., caution against relying on video games to get into shape. "Given the obesity epidemic, especially with children, these games are a good start, but should not be thought of as a substitute for actual exercise," Holland says.