The local pub might not seem like the most obvious location to try and improve the health of middle-aged men but that’s just the task researchers in the U.K. have set themselves. In a novel approach to get unfit men active, the researchers have devised an ‘exergaming’ system targeted at sedentary middle-aged men on Teesside in the North East of England. The plan is to put the system into workingmen’s clubs and get the men to take part in virtual boxing matches with a computer-generated opponent.

The ‘exergaming’ system is being developed by the multi-disciplinary research team at Teesside University led by Dr Iain Spears, Reader in sports and exercise. It is based around shadow boxing with a computer avatar sparring partner and uses a home grown motion capture rig built from Light Emitting Diode (LED) clusters and inertial measurement units.

No cheating

If you’re wondering why the team didn’t simply use a couple of Nintendo Wii consoles, Dr Spears explained that despite its success, the Wii and its motion capture system has a weakness in that it is easy for people to cheat. This is because the accelerometers in console capture systems typically cannot distinguish between full-blown strokes and the smaller flicks.

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

Teesside’s homegrown system has a combination of sensors set on a controller in each hand, a headband 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 headband 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.

Swapping drinking partners for sparring partners

With the aim of enthusing a population that is typically reluctant to take up sport or exercise by using a fun game in a non-threatening, familiar social setting the system will begin a trial in the Buff’s Social Club in Stockton next year. Other workingmen’s and social clubs in Teesside are also 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, emphasized 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 program, but we believe that a 10-15 minute session in total, three times a week, may be sufficient to benefit participants," said Dr Batterham.

The Teesside University project is backed by a UKP200,000 (approx. US$311,500) grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to see if the novel approach can get unfit middle aged men in areas like Teesside more active.