Sedentary middle-aged men on Teesside in the North East of England could soon be using a high-intensity exercise video game to improve their health. For researchers at Teesside University have developed an alternative to the Nintendo Wii which doesn't allow users to cheat.

Now they plan to put it to the test by getting middle-aged members of workingmen's clubs to take part in 'virtual' boxing matches with a computer-generated opponent.

Backing the project with a £200,000 grant is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) which wants to see if the novel approach can get unfit middle aged men in areas like Teesside more active.

The aim is to enthuse a population that is typically reluctant to take up sport or exercise by using a fun game in a non-threatening, familiar social setting.

And where better to start than where men go for a pint, rather than expect them to join a gym or take up a team sport?

The 'exergaming' system is being developed by the multi-disciplinary research team at the University led by Dr Iain Spears, Reader in sports and exercise.

Sparring partner

It is based around shadow boxing with a computer avatar sparring partner. The game uses a home grown motion capture rig built from Light Emitting Diode (LED) clusters and inertial measurement units.

The Buffs Social club in Stockton is the first to sign up and will see the system go on trial next year. Other workingmen's and social clubs in Teesside are being sought as venues to test this new approach to using technology to improve fitness and health.

Fellow researcher from Teesside, Dr Paul Crawshaw, a medical sociologist, emphasised the goal was not necessarily to get men to lose weight although that might be a side-effect. "We want to see if we can narrow health inequalities between rich and poor - and between Teesside and more affluent areas - by getting to this hard-to-reach part of society in health awareness terms. Dr Alan Batterham, Professor of Exercise Science, who is a co-researcher on the project, said: "The exercise will be high-intensity interval training, with relatively brief periods of playing the game interspersed with recovery periods, like a scaled down version of boxing rounds. "There is a growing body of evidence that brief, relatively high-intensity exercise of this type is beneficial for health," he said.

"We are developing and pilot testing the exercise programme, but we believe that a 10-15 minute session in total, three times a week, may be sufficient to benefit participants," said Dr Batterham. Real punch Dr Spears explained that despite its success, the Nintendo Wii and its motion capture system has a weakness in that people can cheat.

"When people first get a Wii they do all the swings like a tennis player and play the proper tennis shots," he said. "But there's a tendency for people to start just flicking the wrist once they get the hang of it."

This is because the accelerometers in console capture systems typically cannot distinguish between full-blown strokes and the smaller flicks.

"So we've adapted the Wii controller and made our own system to ensure that participants exert real energy."

Teesside's home grown system has a combination of sensors set on a controller in each hand, a head band and a chest piece. The two controllers for the hands are linked to the belt, via a rubber resistance band, so participants have to expend real effort to throw a punch. LEDs and inertial measurement units (a combination of accelerometers and gyroscopes) on the hand-held controllers, chest piece and head band allow a computer system to keep an eye on fist, body and head movements.

"It's basically a cross between the new Sony PlayStation Move and Nintendo Wii controllers," said Dr Spears.

Source: Teesside University, AlphaGalileo Foundation.

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