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Heart group backs video games in obesity campaign

Mon, 05/17/2010 - 2:30pm
JOEL SCHECTMAN - AP Business Writer - Associated Press

Talk about strange bedfellows. The American Heart Association and Nintendo Co. are teaming up to promote the popular Wii video game console, as the health advocacy group concedes that its campaign for traditional exercise isn't working.

The surprising partnership, announced Monday, comes amid growing concern about obesity among kids who spend much of their time watching television and playing video games.

Nintendo will be able to brand its Wii products with the AHA's iconic heart logo to let consumers know that the organization considers the items a healthy choice. Nintendo will donate $1.5 million to the AHA as part of the partnership.

"We can keep beating the drum on traditional exercise and make small changes to the obesity epidemic, or we can try something that is really provocative and new," Clyde Yancy, the AHA's president, said in an interview.

Numerous studies show a correlation between obesity and the amount of time children spend with television and video games. Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, said the best solution is simply to cut the cord and encourage youths to spend less time in front of screens.

But the AHA said it is endorsing the Wii because it will encourage sedentary Americans to take the first step toward fitness. With 70 percent of Americans doing no regular physical activity at all, the AHA wants to find a way to reach out to people turned off by gyms and traditional sports.

The organization said its studies show that 40 percent of those who don't exercise say that it's not entertaining enough. The AHA says the Wii addresses the fun factor.

The Wii, which has sold more than 30 million consoles across the Americas, comes with a controller that encourages people to physically move as they play. Sports-style games such as baseball and boxing let players move their arms to simulate the pitching of a ball or the throwing of a punch. Nintendo also makes a foot pad accessory, the Wii Fit, that allows players to try dance steps or yoga.

The heart icon covers the Wii console itself along with two of its more active games, Wii Fit Plus and Wii Sports Resort.

Many of the Wii games are less physically demanding. Some puzzle titles, for instance, let players adjust shapes through small twists of the wrist.

Wii players say that the level of physical exertion varies greatly by player.

Maria Lambiris, an 18-year-old illustrations student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, said the game system recently helped her lose five pounds.

"You really get into it sometimes and you can use your whole body," Lambiris said.

But her classmate Maki Yang, 19, was quick to point out that sometimes it's easier and more fun to cheat.

"You can just do this with your wrist," Yang said while flicking her wrist slightly, "and you do even better in the game."

But while many of the games may not offer the same level of physical activity as traditional sports, they may help get some people started on a healthier lifestyle.

"It is a first step for someone who is entirely sedentary," Yancy said.

Yancy said that once that person becomes motivated, he or she can access a website Nintendo and the AHA are developing to help monitor exercise and diet plans.

Rival game console makers Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp., cognizant of the Wii's popularity, are also developing motion controllers. Microsoft's Natal, for instance, wouldn't require a physical controller; players would use their bodies to control their video game characters. The AHA said it wasn't currently in discussions with those companies.

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