Originally created 05/24/04

Fitness: Video game fans dance off extra pounds



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Forget the image of paunchy video gamers holed up in a dark room, surrounded by sticky Twinkie wrappers and empty soda cans.

Dance Dance Revolution players burn extra pounds along with their quarters. Weight loss is an unexpected benefit of a game designed for dance music.

Natalie Henry, 14, was drawn to the pulsing techno songs, and didn't realize she had slimmed down until she went clothes shopping.

"I went to go buy pants and the 14s were too big. The more I played, I gradually had to get smaller size pants," said Natalie, who now buys size 8 baggy cargoes.

The premise of DDR is simple: Players stand on a 3-foot square platform with an arrow on each side of the square- pointing up, down, left and right. The player faces a video screen that has arrows scrolling upward to the beat of a song chosen by the player. As an arrow reaches the top of the screen, the player steps on the corresponding arrow on the platform.

Sound easy? Throw in combinations of multiple arrows and speed up the pace, and the game is as challenging and vigorous as a high impact aerobics class.

Most beginners look like they're stomping on ants and are flushed in the face after one or two songs.

"At first I was playing it for fun, but when you see results you're like, 'Yeah!"' said Matt Keene, a 19-year-old from Charleston, S.C., who used to weigh more than 350 pounds and wear pants with a 48-inch waist.

Also aided by better eating habits, the 6-foot-5 Keene explained in a phone interview he had dropped to about 200 pounds. Now he works out on a weight bench to bulk up because he thinks he's too skinny.

More than 1 million copies of DDR's home version have been sold in the United States, said Jason Enos, product manager at Konami Digital Entertainment-America, which distributes the Japanese game in the United States. About 6.5 million copies have been sold worldwide.

The home version, which costs about $40 for a game and $40 for a flat plastic dance pad, includes a "workout mode" that can track how many calories the user burns while playing.

The game was designed to be fun. But "what the creators knew is that this is a physical game no matter how you dice it," said Enos, who says he has lost 30 pounds playing DDR. "At some level there's going to be people who want to focus on that element of the game for their own physical health or for exercise."

One pediatrician is so convinced of the health benefits that he's planning a six-month study of DDR and weight loss among 12- to 14-year-olds, in an effort to give the game credibility among physicians.

Dr. Richard Adler, of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, said he likes the game because it "gets the kids off their butts and they lose weight."

"Just like the kids are addicted to regular video games where they use their hands and thumbs, they just don't want to stop," said Adler, who drives a sport utility vehicle with a license plate urging people to "xrsighz."

One possible down side, Adler said, is that DDR might cause discomfort in the joints of players who are heavy and have arthritis.

DDR has been so effective in getting teens off the couch that some schools have incorporated it into their physical education programs.

The chief drawback fans cite is that DDR can be addictive, and therefore expensive. In the arcade, it costs from $1 to $1.50 to dance for about six minutes.

Natalie spent $150 the first four months she played.

"Unless you have the money to do it, you shouldn't do it. I came here with $3," she said.

As she cooled herself in front of a fan at a video arcade, two teenage boys danced on a machine nearby. Their sneakers pounded out a staccato rhythm at a pace so fast that "Lord of the Dance" Michael Flatley would be envious.

Not everyone sees dramatic results. Seventeen-year-old Justin Meeks says his body is more toned, but his weight hasn't changed. He's pleased to point out, though, that his dancing skills have helped him get girls.

"Two. I'm guilty of that," Justin said with a grin as he watched friends play DDR.

Others say the game has changed their lives dramatically.

Four years ago, Tanya Jessen was an unhappy college freshman in Seattle, eating fast food and spending most of her time on the computer.

Her weight hovered around 235, despite weight-loss efforts.

"I thought I was fine until I hit about 220, and I was steadily gaining weight," Jessen said in a telephone interview.

She knew if she kept on that path, she'd weigh 300 by age 25.

Then when Konami released DDR USA two years ago, Jessen got hooked, playing at a Gameworks arcade before and after class. After a year, the 5-foot-8 college student had lost 60 pounds. That motivated her to become more health-conscious - cutting back on high-calorie foods and drinking water instead of soda.

Jessen, 22, is now a svelte 140 pounds and says self-confidence has made her more outgoing and particular about her appearance.

"There's something about not having to shop in the men's section anymore," she said.