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july30homespunweb.jpgBy Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian

RISMEDIA, July 30, 2008-(MCT)-I found Nintendo’s Wii Fit a wee bit embarrassing. Perhaps that’s just me: A woman designated with the “Wii Fit age” of 46. I’m 42. Snivel.

The Wii Fit spit out this nugget of information after testing my “body control” and asking, point blank, if I were prone to clumsiness.

Well, yes. But the point here is not how I fall down more than most people. Or that I trip over stationary objects and stub my big toe, which I’d subsequently demonstrate while testing Wii Fit. In public, no less.

The point is that Wii Fit, as advertised, should make you faster, stronger, more flexible and, ahem, more coordinated. At a glance, it seems capable of doing those things.

Consumer reviews and postings in techy blogs on the Internet give high marks to Wii Fit. But many also mention what a sassy personality it has. Wii Fit, it seems, is prone to blurting ugly truths and, according to some users, even outright lies.

London’s Daily Mail reported recently how Wii Fit told a 10-year-old girl she was fat, causing a public outcry. Her stepfather stated that the girl is “solidly built but not fat” and noted that he and her mother “had to work hard to convince her she isn’t.”

Obesity experts in England slammed Nintendo, fearing the game would damage the body images of children everywhere. They called on Nintendo to warn parents that it’s unsuitable for their offspring. Coincidentally, or not, Nintendo notes in its brochures and packaging that Wii Fit is recommended for adults 20 and older.

Nevertheless, stores like Circuit City in Brentwood, Mo., can’t keep Wii Fit packages in stock since it arrived on the market. A Circuit City sales representative said every time a shipment of a dozen or so Wii Fit units arrives, they’re gone within minutes. Wii Fit, which retails for $89.99, includes software and a balance board. A Wii console must be purchased separately. It retails for $250 on up depending on the accessories you get with it.

Wii at the Westin

I tested Wii Fit at Solera Health Club & Spa, the gym at the Westin Hotel near St. Louis’s Busch Stadium. Nintendo has partnered with Westin Hotels to install this latest video incarnation in their health clubs nationwide. The downtown hotel is one of the first 10 in the country testing it.

Jennifer Hall, who works at Solera, says Wii fills a void for families staying at the hotel.

“We don’t have a swimming pool so Mom and Dad can come in and put the kids on the Wii while they work out here,” she said, pointing at the weights and cardio equipment in the spacious Solera gym.

Hall then demonstrated Wii Fit. It includes a large wall-mounted, flat-screen monitor, the balance board and Wii remotes that must be signed out at the spa’s front desk.

Hall removed her sandals and nudged a button on the side of the balance board with her big toe, then stepped on. She clicked buttons on the remote to find the Mii character she’d already created. Miis are virtual cartoon characters with large bulbous heads.

Wii Fit prompted Hall to stand on the balance board with her feet equally apart. It found her center of balance then instructed her to enter her birthday and height. Sensing her weight through the balance board, Wii Fit calculated her body mass index. BMI’s fall into four categories: underweight, normal, overweight or obese.

The Mii body becomes thinner or plumper depending on your BMI.

Hall’s BMI fell squarely in the normal range. So other than its excessively big head, her Mii looked healthy and trim.

Next, Wii Fit put Hall through a body control test, which required her to shift her weight from leg to leg. It measured how quickly and accurately she was able to shift, say, 72% of her weight onto her left leg, then 64% onto her right leg, 94% back on to her left and so on. Wii Fit rated Hall’s balance as above-average. Then it estimated her Wii Fit age at 26. She’s 23.

“This is the part that tends to be a little off, because people tend to put in the wrong year they were born,” Hall said, good naturedly.

Are You Shaking Yet?

Wii Fit includes four training modes: yoga, aerobics, strength training and balance games. More than 40 activities fall in those categories such as Hula Hoop, ski jump, soccer head, single-leg extensions, tight-rope walk, basic running, step aerobics, push-ups, deep breathing and holding yoga positions such as the half-moon and tree pose.

The latter requires a user to stand for several seconds on one leg on the balance board with her arms extended over her head, palms touching. A virtual trainer that looks like a normal person rather than a Mii demonstrates the strength training and yoga exercises.

The balance board senses if a user is shaking during a pose, and the trainer gives tips on how to calm down with deep breathing.

Miis demonstrate aerobics and balance games. Not all activities are available straight out of the box. You have to earn some of them. Once you create your own Mii, Wii Fit expects you to return frequently, to earn credits that go into your Wii Fit bank. As credits add up, Wii Fit unlocks new activities. As you get better at each activity, its level of intensity increases.

Chasing a Male Mii

Hall finished the balance exercises and moved onto Hula Hoop. She and her Mii faced two other Miis on the screen, who tossed hoops at her Mii. The motions of Hall’s Mii mimicked her own as Hall reached for the sky, hips swirling madly. The virtual hoops slid smoothly down around her arms and body until her torso was twirling a half dozen or more of them.

Next up, step aerobics. Hall stepped off and on the balance board and from side to side following every move of on-screen Miis.

Then she asked if I’d like to try.

Absolutely, I said.

I stepped on the balance board, learned my BMI (which is normal), took the body control test (which told me I’m clumsy), then opted to try basic running (which I’ve been doing avidly for nearly 20 years now).

I stepped off the balance board as instructed and put the hand remote in my pocket where, presumably, it signaled my speed to Wii Fit.

A male Mii appeared on the screen several virtual yards in front of the Mii that represented me and began running, looking back to see if I was catching up.

There was a problem though. I was supposed to run in place, and I’m used to moving forward when I run.

Plus, I wanted to beat the male Mii, who taunted me with each step.

I tripped over the balance board three times, stubbing my big toe. Hall giggled. Several gym users looked at me bemusedly.

As I said, a wee bit embarrassing.

© 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.