It may be healthier than sitting on the couch, but an informal research project suggests the health benfits of Nintendo's revolutionary Wii video games have been slightly oversold.

The still hard-to-find game system, the "hot" gift during the last two holiday seasons, uses a motion-sensitive controller, requiring players to move when playing the games.

Nintendo has marketed the Wii as an engaging new way to get people off the couch and into the action. So Dalhousie University student Justin White wanted to find out.

"I was playing Wii boxing with a friend and noticed how exerting it was," said the fourth-year kinesiology student, who saw an opportunity to combine his love of gaming with his studies. "I thought to myself, 'I'm working up a sweat doing this Nintendo thing; I might run with that.' So I put together an outline and the class thought it would be a good project to take on."

The Dalhousie class in question was Applications in Exercise Physiology and its professor, Jo Welch, welcomed the unique experiment.

"I've always held that the 'best exercise' is exercise that a person will do," she said. "Because different activities appeal to different people, the more options that are readily available, the more likely it is that exercise will occur."

But videogames as exercise? It's not as crazy an idea as you might think.

In addition to motion-sensitive controllers, the system also comes with Wii Sports, a five-games-in-one software package that's the perfect showcase for the technology. Swing the remote like a tennis racket, golf club or baseball bat and your "Mii" on the screen does the same. You can even add the Wii's "nunchuk" attachment for a two-fisted boxing match, the game's most intense workout.

It was the boxing game that White and 27 of his fellow classmates tested against more traditional forms of exercise: a walk in a park and a "boxercise" video workout.

Every student participated in each activity for 30 minutes as their classmates measured heart rates and levels of perceived exertion how hard the participants thought they were working out.

Verdict? It depends

The verdict? Each student's final report looked at the numbers a bit differently, but the consensus was that it really depends on what sort of physical activity you're looking for.

"What I noticed in my findings is that the Nintendo Wii, on average, would not provide much health benefit for most people," said Nicole Nixon, one of the participating students. "But when I compared potential health benefits for weight management and cardio-respiratory fitness, many of the participants would receive some weight management benefits."

It seems that while the Wii's boxing game isn't vigorous enough to provide a comprehensive cardiovascular workout, it can play a role in maintaining or losing body weight, especially for someone starting from a lower level of fitness.

"If they're looking for cardiovascular fitness, I'd advise them to do something else because it's really not intense enough," White said. "But if they're just looking to lose weight, it's a good way to get started. It can also be a gateway to other things, and may get people interested in the actual sports themselves too."

Boxercise

The most energetic workout of the three trials was the boxercise video, while walking provided less exercise than the Wii.

But White's report, which he's considering submitting for publishing, noted something interesting: study participants who were gamers to begin with had a lower level of perceived exertion playing Wii boxing. In other words, it felt less like exercise because they were enjoying it more.

That's why he thinks there's immense potential in the phenomenon that the Wii has started: interactive fitness that plays more like gaming than exercise.

"Just look at some of the other things that have been happening over the past 10, 12 years with video games in learning for kids," he elaborates. "There are so many computer games for math, spelling, language skills all of these things that used to be taught using books are now becoming interactive. The same thing could easily happen with exercise."

That thesis may be put to the test later this year when Nintendo releases Wii Fit, an exercise game with a weight-sensing balance board that allows players to perform yoga, push-ups and other exercises and track changes in their body-mass index. It has already sold over a million copies in Japan.