Can’t get to the gym? Just turn on your TV! At least, that seems to be the promise of the exergaming world, in which a game of tennis or a Zumba class is ever-available in your living room. But just how effective are these games compared to their real-life counterparts?

“Something is better than nothing when it comes to physical activity,” says Jim White, registered dietician, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “but don’t fool yourself: these games are nothing like the real thing.”

That’s not to say they’re a waste of time — far from it. “In comparison to other sedentary video games, Wii Fit Plus Aerobics and Zumba Fitness, for example, are excellent alternatives, but when compared to traditional aerobics or Zumba, they fall short,” explains White. “On the spectrum of video games and regular exercise, these games fall somewhere in the middle. Their goal is not necessarily to help you lose weight or get fit, but to get you moving and hopefully get you interested in the activities you are acting out.”

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In most instances, the traditional activity (step, boxing, running) burns twice as many calories as the exer-version, says White. But exergames do have some benefits: “These games are usually good for working on balance, coordination and agility,” he says.

Plus, says White, the games are good if you can’t get out of the house, and they’re just plain fun! Also, he points out, exergames can provide motivation with scores you can try to beat. “This helps with discipline and tracking results, and is very good for creating friendly competition between friends and family,” says White.

However, says White, exergames generally do not equate to actual fitness. “They require a low level of cardio and often can’t discern if you are doing a movement exactly correct,” he says. “There is little carryover between games and actual fitness abilities, especially with Wii Sports — little more than a flick of the wrist is needed in some instances.”

When it comes to comparing calories burned, White explains that, in general, you burn 60 calories an hour at rest, 100 calories an hour typing and 150 calories per hour on the average Wii game.

Here’s how some of the Wii Fit Sports games stack up to their real-life counterparts, according to White:

Wii Sports – Golf burns 3-3.5 calories/minute …. regular golf burns 6-6.5 calories/minute.

Wii Sports – Tennis burns 5 calories/minute … regular tennis burns 8 calories/minute.

Wii Sports – Boxing burns 7 calories/minute … regular boxing burns 10-10.5 calories/minute.

“Dance games tend to burn more calories in that they require more movement,” says White, “and more movement equals more calories burned.”

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Here’s White’s assessment of three of the most popular dance exergames and how they calculate calories burned:

Zumba: A 150-lb person can burn about 536 calories/hour with Zumba, says White, and that goes for both the exer-version (Zumba Fitness) and a real class. Depending on the intensity level you choose, explains White, the game will tell you calories burned, but that number is usually inflated. “In order for it to give an accurate reading, it needs to take your age height and weight into account — anything less provides a guesstimate,” says White.

Just Dance: “The sweat points and how they equate to calories burned seem to be a little inflated and somewhat confusing,” says White. “But the numbers give you something to strive for and take your mind off what you are doing, and if you are having fun and stick to it, that’s all that matters.”

Dance Dance Revolution: With “light” intensity, you’ll burn about 5.9 calories per minute; 6.7 at standard; 8.1 at difficult. “When comparing the mid-level gaming to walking on a treadmill, it is equivalent to walking 3.66 miles an hour,” says White. “Definitely less than you could do with strict cardiovascular training.”

The bottom line? Getting moving is always a good thing, no matter where you’re doing it, but exergames shouldn’t totally replace working out in the real world.

 “All in all, movement and activity coupled with a healthy eating plan will aid in weight loss,” says White. “And if you really dedicate the time and energy to these games, you will probably see results of some sort.” You get out of them what you put in, he says, but keep in mind that you could see quicker gains with more traditional workouts, whether they’re in a gym, on a track, in a field or in a pool. “In the end, it is about what you will actually stick to — that is your best bet.” 

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