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Meet the next generation of exercise gaming

EA Sports PR manager Lisa Bruce and associate producer Matt Lafreniere play the new EA Sports game NFL training camp at the EA Sports Burnaby offices.

Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail/laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith is in my house, and he's running me ragged.

We're not even at the halfway mark of the 26 drills he's putting me through and already I'm sweating, I'm sore, and my heart rate is up to 148 beats per minute.

Mr. Smith is a cruel trainer. He doesn't say a word after directing me to do a killer series of heel lifts, rainbow squats, windmills, alternating reverse lunges and an abdominal-destroying drill called "crunches and punches."

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A disembodied voice keeps barking at me every time I slow down. "Come on, we're supposed to be working here!" the voice says. "Dig deeper!"

Did I expect NFL Training Camp to be a walk in the park? Well, yeah. The real NFL training camp would destroy a mere mortal like me. But the game of the same name, developed by EA Sports Active, surely wasn't going to be all that difficult - especially considering the track record of exercise video games.

Since exergames hit the mainstream with the release of the Nintendo Wii in 2006, they have largely been marketed to kids, who are naturally drawn to video games. They've also proved popular with seniors interested in low-impact exercises.

NFL Training Camp, which is being marketed largely to guys who sit around watching pigskin on Sundays, is an example of the rising trend toward more strenuous games. Rarely, if ever, have exergames offered the type of intense workouts that adults hire real trainers at real gyms to get. For anyone looking to get in shape, exergames have been more game than exer. But with the release of NFL Training Camp, and a few other new titles, that's changing.

"If you use this and you dedicate yourself to it, you're going to hurt, you're going to sweat, and you're going to see results," says Justin Sheffield, the producer for NFL Training Camp.

Mr. Sheffield and his team approached eight strength and conditioning coaches from across the National Football League to ensure the game's 70 exercises offer the most authentic workout possible. "We wanted to make sure it is a real workout," he says, adding that many other titles seem too "gamey."

Yes, NFL Training Camp has exercises for children that are relatively easy. But, Mr. Sheffield says, "For the guy who wants to put it on Difficult and crank through this, you're going to do some pretty hard-core exercises that are pretty tough."

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A handful of other new exergaming titles, such as Your Shape Fitness Evolved, developed by Montreal-based Ubisoft, Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010 and EA Sports Active 2 are also promising that users will work up a sweat.

These new titles may help exergaming shed its reputation as being child's play.

As popular as many previous exercise video games have been, they haven't exactly offered strenuous workouts. A study published this year in the journal Pediatrics showed that such bestsellers as Wii Boxing and Dance Dance Revolution, both considered relatively intense titles, offered workouts that were comparable to moderate-intensity walking.

"The criticism of exergaming always keeps saying, 'It's not really exercise,' " says Ernie Medina, a preventive care specialist in California and a founding member of the Exergame Network, a U.S.-based advocacy group created to raise awareness of gaming fitness. That criticism has been fuelled in large part because most of the scientific research has looked at its impact on children and seniors, Dr. Medina says.

As well, exercise video games have traditionally put the emphasis on fun over strenuous training.

"Fun is for certain the single most important element of an exergame," says Dwayne Sheehan, co-founder of the Exergaming Research Centre at the University of Calgary. "Some people just want to play and have fun."

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The promise of fun may be great for getting kids up off the couch, but that emphasis has seen many people who are serious about getting in shape opt for going to the gym rather than turning themselves in to human joysticks.

"Those games are good for getting kids active these days, especially because obesity is becoming such a big issue in North America ... but for a person who has specific goals, it's not the best workout," says Cody Innes, a trainer at Gold's Gym in Calgary. "A couple of my clients have a Wii Fit and they'll do some stretching or yoga on it, but it's not their workout. They still come in to the gym or go for a run outside."

A real-life trainer can also give you tips a video game can't - such as whether you're doing it right or not, Mr. Innes says. The booklet that comes with NFL Training Camp warns players that the game "cannot detect whether your movements or exertions may be dangerous to you."

Games such as N FL Training Camp, however, have managed to strike a balance between fun and demanding fitness. The game has all sorts of bells and whistles, from picking the name on your jersey to which NFL team you want to work out with - whether it's the Buffalo Bills or the Super Bowl champions New Orleans Saints. The stadiums in which players work out are designed to look real, and the chance to earn points by performing is an inescapable part of playing any video game.

"It's built to make sure that it's as close as we can get to being a personal trainer at home," Mr. Sheffield says. You're going to feel the burn. It's going to hurt, he adds. "Which is not what the kids want to hear, but it's true."

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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