Teenagers once ruled the world of active gaming, while their grandparents sat and watched. Now seniors are competing in virtual boxing matches, dance tournaments and bowling games — sometimes against their grandchildren.

Although gaming products were predominately geared toward the younger set only a few years ago, the introduction of the Wii has turned electronic gaming into an activity that everyone can enjoy, says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

"This is one of the rare products that we've seen grab hold and do well in the senior market in such a short period of time," Milner says. "I don't see any trend indicating that it's slowing down."

Over the past few years, this trend has caught on at retirement communities and fitness facilities nationwide. By getting seniors up and moving, active gaming is helping older adults sharpen their minds, strengthen their bodies, and lift their spirits by creating a sense of community.

Lisa Hansen, the co-director of an active gaming vendor's research lab at the University of South Florida, describes active gaming as screen-based activities that require physical movement in order to play and control the game. While seniors are playing the Wii, they're moving their bodies, rather than just their thumbs, and they're often stepping or swinging their arms.

Retirement communities are dedicating entire rooms to Wii gaming and organizing competitive tournaments. In fact, more retirement centers plan to buy a gaming system than traditional cardiovascular equipment over the next two years, according to research from the ICAA.

By investing about $1,000 in a big screen TV and about $300 in a gaming system, health club owners easily can integrate this trend into their facilities, too. So far, however, Milner says the Wii trend hasn't made the leap from retirement communities to clubs. Sandy Coffman, the president of Programming for Profit in Bradenton, FL, also has seen few multipurpose clubs capitalizing on this trend, but, she says, "I think they should think about it because it brings the camaraderie, the fun and the social aspect to exercise."

Club owners may be reluctant to invest in the equipment, shift away from their business models or dedicate space within their clubs, however. While Chris Davis, business development manager for Club 50, which targets members over 50 years old, doesn't rule out the possibility of investing in this kind of equipment down the road, he doesn't see the clubs integrating this technology in the near future.

"We haven't moved into the electronic gaming area because we have a set 30-minute program," says Davis. "If we did deploy it, it would be used at the front or back end of a workout, or while they're waiting."

Although playing on the Wii is a great way for seniors to relax post-workout, it should not be a substitute for regular cardio and strength training exercise, says Sheldon Zinberg, chairman and president of Nifty After Fifty, which has nine clubs catering to people over 50.

"It's not vigorous exercise, but it can burn calories and help people keep their weight under control," he says. "It should be ancillary to their exercise program."

Research studies have shown that calories burned playing the Wii are not as great as users get by playing the actual sport.

Physical Improvements

Although the Wii may not provide as intense a workout as more traditional cardio and resistance equipment, seniors are improving their hand-eye coordination and balance using the Wii. Most importantly, they're having fun, Zinberg says.

"Our members love it because it's entertaining," says Zinberg, whose nine clubs have set up Wii rooms complete with a big-screen TV and a gaming system. "After they've improved their exercise ability through their workouts, they can perform better on the Wii than they have before."

Jona Leo is finding the same thing among residents at Trail Ridge Retirement Community in Sioux Falls, SD. Since he began a wellness program at the community a year ago, many residents are participating in the group exercise classes and working out in the fitness room simply so they can sharpen their skills on the Wii.

"By participating in the wellness program, they're able to stand up without using a chair, or they are able to bowl 10 frames without getting tired," says Leo, the Trail Ridge wellness director.

One advantage of the Wii is that it can be modified for any fitness level, says Peggy Buchanan, director of fitness and aquatics at Vista del Monte Retirement Community in Santa Barbara, CA, which purchased a Wii system for each of its 13 centers a year ago. At her center, residents in all the levels of care — independent, assisted living and skilled nursing — play games on the Wii.

Milner says the Wii has surged in popularity for this very reason.

"The Wii is social, it's engaging, and it can be used at any level of fitness and health," he says. "We've seen people in wheelchairs, walkers and canes [using the Wii]. It's not discriminating, and it helps to break down that barrier."

Getting More Active

Although some club owners are reluctant to invest in the Wii trend, others are pouring anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 into active gaming machines. Unlike the Wii, which is geared toward residential use, these machines are designed for commercial applications, such as health clubs, and they take active gaming to a new level.

This concept — which blends a gym with an arcade — is already in more than 25 states nationwide, according to one active gaming manufacturer. Many times, club owners set aside a room for the active gaming equipment, just as they would design a facility with a Pilates studio. To draw in seniors, some club owners are inviting Silver Sneakers members to work out in the room at a designated time.

While buying the active gaming equipment and setting aside a specialized room is a significant investment for a club owner, it's worthwhile in the long run, says Jamie Daum, manager of 7 Flags Express at GreenWay Crossing, a 10,000-square-foot club in West Des Moines, IA. Last November, owners of 7 Flags purchased 12 pieces of active gaming equipment.

"I think a lot of health club owners are still stuck on the resistance and cardio equipment," Daum says. "If they think outside of the box, they will see that this is the direction that exercise is going in. Having an active gaming room shows the value in having a gym membership."

Daum and other experts agree that offering a Wii in a health club is a good option for budget-minded club owners, but that going the extra step and investing in active gaming equipment can give club owners an edge over the competition.

While the Wii fits into the definition of active gaming, it doesn't have the more advanced features of the commercially available machines, says Hansen. Depending on the active game, the skill level requirements may vary significantly. Some active games may require more intense exercise, such as jumping or running in place, in order to play the game. As a result, these games may be less appealing and suitable for seniors, Hansen says.

Many clubs target children and teenagers with their active gaming rooms. 7 Flags Express is no exception, but the club also is attracting seniors to its active gaming room. Adults over the age of 55 comprise about 20 percent of the club's membership, and so far, they have caught on quickly to this trend, Daum says. Although they're often reluctant to try out the room at first, he says that after a short time, it becomes a staple in their workout.

"Our members love it," he says. "We've even had grandparents bring their grandkids into the club to work out together in the room."

Each machine offers a different virtual experience, and users propel the games with their own movement rather than with a joystick or other controller. The club's 250 members can compete in virtual boxing matches or ride bikes on trails — all without leaving the gym.

If the concept draws in enough new members at the West Des Moines club,7 Flags will invest in active gaming equipment at its main location, which has 10,000 memberships, Daum says.

Social Connection

Whether a club owner opts to invest in a Wii gaming system or devote an entire room to other active gaming equipment, operators will find that they can bring people together through active gaming.

"It adds to the whole social element of exercise, which is so important for the senior population," Coffman says. "When you get the social, recreational and competitive aspect to it, you get laughter."

When club owners can get laughter and excitement into their clubs, then they are more apt to retain their members and even pull in new clientele.

"Offering active gaming is a great way to bring in new members who may otherwise be intimidated to join a fitness facility," Buchanan says.

Buchanan advises health club owners to sponsor Wii tournaments, which have been extremely popular at her retirement community. To make these events even more successful, club owners can create multi-generational leagues or competitions. For example, Nifty After Fifty recently worked with a community organization to sponsor a Wii bowling tournament pitting seniors against teenagers.

"They can learn from each other, and it's a great way for them to communicate," says Zinberg. "We're planning on holding several more of these events. I think it's the beginning of a trend."

Although not all club owners are sold on this trend yet, Coffman says they should seriously consider it.

"You can bring 20 people into a 400-square-foot room and have them bowl, play tennis and golf," Coffman says. "It's a way for the fitness industry to bring people back to their recreational roots."

Through the world of active gaming, club members of any age can stimulate their spirits, bodies and minds.

Read the "Comparison of Wii vs. Active Gaming" sidebar or the "How to Integrate Active Gaming into a Club" sidebar for more information.

Comparison of Wii vs. Active Gaming

Wii Active Gaming Equipment
Space Needs The user must be able to stand several feet away from the TV screen, move in all directions and extend his or her arms using the handheld accessories. While some clubs are devoting entire facilities to active gaming, the concept is most successful when it's an ancillary service and is placed within its own separate room within a health club.
Cost About $300 for the system, and $1,000 or more for a big-screen TV. The average cost of most active gaming machines is about the same as a piece of high-end selectorized equipment — between $2,500 and $3,500. Club owners also have to invest in a separate TV for most pieces of equipment.
Ease of Use for Seniors The Wii uses a wand, which seniors use to play the game. If they're unfamiliar with computers and gaming technology, they may experience a learning curve, but they can catch on quickly, club owners say. One vendor is even working on niche-specific products for seniors that don't require the use of wands, but rather body movements. While some active gaming technology may be too fast or complicated for seniors, other machines transform existing cardio equipment into virtual gaming machines. For example, users may pedal a recumbent bike to propel their movements on the screen.

How to Integrate Active Gaming into a Club

  • Give games a test run. Colin Milner of the International Council on Active Aging advises operators to take a group of older adults to a store and let them try out a few gaming systems to find one that they enjoy.

  • Buy a big-screen TV. Keep in mind that as seniors age, their vision will decline.

  • Encourage multi-generational leagues. Allow seniors and teenagers to join a Wii bowling or tennis league without segregating the teams based on age.

  • Create a separate room or area for active gaming. If possible, try to find an area where at least eight of your members can gather around the TV, or be in a room filled with other active gaming equipment.

  • Offer training classes. To make members feel more comfortable during the initial learning phase, offer classes on how to set up and play Wii, and how to use the active gaming equipment.