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Exergaming: Programming Outside the Xbox

Turning a profit for your club can be as easy as playing games.

Interactive video games, like Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution (a dance simulation game) and Nintendo’s Wii, are fueling the newest movement in fitness—exergaming. Part exercise and part video game, exergames enhance the video gaming experience by demanding that a player meet game-related objectives through physical activity. With over two-thirds of American heads of households playing video and/or computer games every year (ESA 2007), clubs have the potential to reach a broader audience by implementing video game programming. Exergames are proving helpful in targeting new members, as well as enhancing exercise adherence (Warburton et al. 2007).

What Is an Exergame?

Exergames are “games for health that
get the player moving, using physical challenges and interfaces that require movement and exertion,” states Debra Lieberman, a lecturer in the department of communication and a researcher in
the Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “They involve the player in dance, aerobics, kickboxing, sports moves, martial arts, biking, virtual window washing or other forms of physical activity.” Dance Dance Revolution and Wii may be the more well-known forms of exergaming, but there are a variety of other products that can be played without a PlayStation-like console.

The “fun factor” is an exergame’s greatest appeal, but its health-related benefits are an added value. Short bouts of game play are similar in intensity to moderate forms of traditional physical activities, such as walking, skipping and jogging (Maddison et al. 2007). A study using Nintendo’s Wii showed that playing an average of 12.2 hours a week could burn off 1,830 calories (Liverpool John Moores University 2007).

“Exergaming is working in terms of motivating individuals to exercise,” says Lisa Hansen, co-director of the University of South Florida’s XRKade Research Lab. Her research focuses on the physiological benefits and children’s perception of exergames. “The goal is to investigate the effects of exergaming on children and other populations cognitively, socially and physically.” She believes exergaming will break the barriers to exercise (e.g., boredom) and increase physical activity in children, hopefully providing a holistic alternative for combating obesity.

Is Exergaming Right for Your Facility?

Investing in exergames won’t necessarily guarantee a profitable return unless it aligns with the goals, culture and demographics of your club. According to the statistics of the video gaming industry, the average game player is 33 years old. Forty-eight percent of players are ages 18–49, and 24% are over 50 (ESA 2007). While children under 18 make up just 28% of all gamers, they are currently the greatest adopters of exergames.

“The bigger the club, the more risk,” states Mike Hansen, chief executive officer (CEO) and president of iTECH Fitness. “[Clubs] will always watch the adaptation of the market before adoption will happen.” iTECH helps launch exergaming centers, called XRKades (www.XRKade
.com), in health clubs and recreation facilities around the world. Hansen projects that 2008 will bring as much as 150% growth to the exergaming industry.

Many clubs will see this growth as an opportunity to attract new members. Although exergaming might increase membership sales, that should not be a club’s only motivation. Purchasing exergaming equipment is not the same as buying a few extra cardio machines. Technology-driven programming creates a ripple effect across all departments in a health club. It can redistribute membership demographics, create additional operational responsibilities for staff, require new programming goals and sales incentives, and potentially modify a club’s culture. How you implement an exergaming department is just as important as why.

Consider the following logistical variables:

Space: “The number-one barrier to entry into the exergaming market is space,” says Hansen. A dedicated area is important for the program to succeed. Plan anywhere from 800 to 7,000 square feet. Like indoor cycling or yoga, exergaming is an experience that thrives in the right space and under favorable conditions.

Cost: Purchasing exergames can be similar to buying a treadmill or yoga mats for your club in that games cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Estimate about $50 per square feet of space. Remember to include hidden costs, such as equipment security and maintenance, program staffing and training, and marketing promotions.

Equipment: Stick to games people know. Games operating with motion sensors or requiring the least amount of heavy pounding tend to be your best bets in terms of maintenance. In the future, expect to see equipment leasing programs, so clubs can rotate newer games through their centers.

Pay-per-Play or Free?

Should exergaming be an additional charge for members or part of the overall club experience? Most new programs start out as a paid service because of their revenue-generating potential. Exergaming is unique in that it targets an audience who might otherwise never join a gym. To attract those people, think about creating an exclusive exergaming membership, which might limit access to other amenities in the club. Given the chance to acclimate into a fitness environment, gamers might eventually upgrade to a regular membership.

Get Your Game On

Exergaming is here to stay, but that does not mean it will be a substitute for the hands-on approach to fitness. “I don’t think that it will replace all traditional fitness activities, nor replace qualified staff,” muses Fred Hoffman, MEd, 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and director of international services for The Club & Spa Synergy Group. “But I do believe that it can co-exist with traditional modalities in a fitness facility.” In fact, he encourages group exercise coordinators and club managers to explore and prepare for this new approach to exercise. Adds Lisa Hansen, “I strongly believe that exergaming will be a common piece to the fitness industry and other recreational facilities . . . in the next 1–2 years.” l

Structuring an Effective Exergaming Program

Exergaming isn’t just a “plug-and-play” style of programming; it comes with its own curriculum and schedule. According to Dr. Ernie Medina, co-founder and CEO of XRTainment Zone (www.xrtainmentzone.com), “you have to have programming that will engage (people) to give it a try.”

Here are five suggestions to help you establish exergaming in your facility:

  1. Hire or Appoint an Exergame Director. “[Exergaming] is very different than the way most of us in fitness and health care have been trained,” says Medina. It has its own culture. Therefore, an XG director is essential for cultivating the program’s energy. Consider employing someone with a passion for gaming first, exercise second. Much like a group exercise director, the XG director will manage a staff (a team of “XG trainers”), schedule events and classes, and recruit new participants into the program.
  2. Design Classes for All Age Groups and Fitness Levels. Exergames are rated “E” for everyone, but that doesn’t mean a 10-year-old and a 25-year-old will want to work out together. Offering a variety of classes throughout the day will help target every kind of member. Some exergames require full-combat, high-impact participation—perfect for boot camp classes and cardio circuits. Others focus on strategy, balance and coordination.
  3. Promote the Elements That Gamers Can’t Get Elsewhere. Die-hard gamers may already have games at home or regularly visit game arcades. Focus on enhancing the social component of the program by developing a sense of community. Create exergaming tournaments, track player progress by logging game statistics and offer techno-driven program incentives throughout the month (e.g., subscriptions to video game magazines or drawings for the latest gaming product).
  4. Use Exergamer Language. Most clubs offer educational seminars and lectures to members. However, an interactive audience may not be responsive to static PowerPoint presentations or informational handouts. Integrate websites and computer-based games into your lessons. (An online search for “health games” can elicit
    a list of links, especially for nutrition-based games.)
  5. Market Heavily to the Tech-Savvy. To recruit new members, you have to “connect on their turf.” There are dozens of video game groups on MySpace and Facebook. Go to websites and online forums (www.getupmove.com is a discussion board for dance games) to get player insights and follow game trends. Promote your exergaming programs to computer departments at colleges and universities, as well as local video game stores.


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