A quick glance at my physique – not that I am suggesting that this is something you would want to look at, ever – will reveal that I am not a fitness expert. The ravages of time, sloth, and Cheetos have taken their toll on my mortal shell, and any efforts I make at this point are not improvements, but merely a reduction in the rate of decline.
In the process of trying to not die before I hit forty, I’ve learned that the most important part of any exercise program is not the equipment. It’s not the type of exercise you do, how often you do it, or what time of day it is when you go for it. It’s not the gym or the clothes you wear or the quality of your running shoes. The most crucial aspect of any fitness program is enjoying it. Which is hard, because working out is usually a dull chore. If you find a way to love it, you’ll keep at it even when you don’t feel well, when you’re depressed, or when the weather is nasty. People who maintain an exercise regimen for years are able to do so because they learn to like it.
Finding a good exercise program is then about motivation management. It’s about trying to find ways to make yourself want to do it. You buy the gym membership, hoping the guilt of spending all that money will make you go. (Hint: Guilt is actually a terrible motivator.) You buy new running shoes and equipment to have something to look forward to when it’s time to work out, but that only works until the novelty wears off. You buy exercise tapes, but you get sick of them after a while. You make little deals and promises with yourself, or set up a system of rewards, all the while hoping to find some magic combination of policies that will make you do something you hate.
So what you need is something that you can do for hours without getting sick of it. Something like (and I really hope you saw this coming) a videogame.
While I’ve often made fun of Wii Fit in the past, I actually think it’s the best exercise equipment I’ve ever used. Treadmills are bulky, they don’t offer much variety, and using them can be dull. But Wii Fit costs less than a treadmill, it’s quite small, it offers a huge variety of types of exercises, and it can turn your workout into mini-games to keep things interesting. On top of this, it can weigh you and chart your progress. Sure, the Wii Fit trainer is a passive-aggressive little shit and the games don’t hold a candle to mini-game titles like Mario Party, but it’s still better than walking forward on a treadmill and straining to hear the television over the sound of the machine and your own desperate struggle for oxygen.
True to form, this one successful and innovative Wii title has led to a dozen half-assed imitators, cheapo copycats, and other cynical attempts to cash in on the Wii Fit success without trying to make a quality product. This is a shame, because I think Wii Fit is a good start, not a good end. This idea is ripe for evolution, and the copycats seem to be beating it into the ground instead of building on it.
As part of my ongoing project to reduce the amount of Shamus-based mass in the universe, I picked up a Wii Fit this year. Like I said, it’s the best piece of exercise equipment I’ve ever owned, but it falls far short of what it could be. Most of the games are simply too short. Just about the time I get into the rhythm of the downhill skiing, the run ends and I have to muck around restarting the thing. Generally, the more fun or interesting a game is, the shorter it is. Some are less than a minute. It’s frustrating, like trying to watch a TV show that’s been hacked up into thirty-second YouTube clips. Trying to fill a twenty-minute workout in little thirty-second increments is bothersome and keeps you from building up any kind of flow.
The common approach to exercise is to have a short, intense workout. Short, because you have better things to do with your time. Intense, because you want to burn as many calories as possible in that short but miserable time. Exercise sucks. But it would be much healthier to have prolonged, steady exercise than a short, lung-busting burst of activity. Rather than taking dull labor and sugar-coating it with a shallow but cute game, it would be better to take an already fun game and add a dimension of exercise onto it. I’d be happy to replace the fifteen minutes of mildly amusing Wii Fit minigames with a good two hours of incentivised walking while playing a game I’d actually enjoy on its own merits. I want some exercise-driven games, as opposed to some game-driven exercise.
The other night I spent two hours playing Mad World on the Wii, which is longer than I ever spent “playing” Wii Fit. I was sitting, but I couldn’t help but wish the game could be connected to the Wii Fit board. If you took the healing items out of the game and allowed the player to gradually rebuild their health by stepping on and off the board, you’d have something that could provide hours of entertainment and exercise at the same time. Sure, I could just walk back and forth in place while playing, but linking the stepping to the player’s health gives you a compelling motivation to keep going even when you’re tired. And like I said, motivation is everything.
In a perfect world, normal mainstream titles would offer a “workout” mode that operates this way, letting you power your gameplay with gradual, steady movement. You could play the game normally, sitting on the couch with your Wiimote and your nachos, or you could play in workout mode and step on and off the Wii Fit board while you play. In Mad World, you’d gradually gain health. In Super Mario Galaxy, you’d earn a star bit for each step. (Or whatever works as a balanced reward.) Each game might handle it differently, but the important thing would be to turn every game into a possible exercise machine. I’m not talking about frantic aerobic activity that will wipe you out after ten minutes, I’m talking about a simple set of movements designed to get you off the couch and keep your blood flowing. Two hours of simple walking is going to incinerate a lot more calories than anything the average person can fit into twenty minutes. Moreover, the slow and steady workout is better for your heart, better for your knees, and it hurts less. The only reason people don’t do the slow workout is because it’s so time consuming, but that’s not a problem when your gaming time and your workout are one in the same.
I’d love if Nintendo tried something like this. It would be huge. And I would be less so.
Shamus Young is the guy behind this movie, this website, this book, these two webcomics, and this program. You should probably disregard any advice he gives pertaining to fitness.