Penn Hills YMCA's exercise program uses interactive games to attract children


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A child on a bike chases dragons through the sky on a cloud trail.

Another plays a "Whack-A-Mole" style game in which the object is to punch and kick illuminated pads on a 10-foot-long wall.

Nearby, another youth engages in a furious dance contest against an opponent halfway around the world.

This can't be exercise -- it's way too much fun.

But fun and exercise are the objectives that officials at the Penn Hills YMCA had in mind when they unveiled XRKade, a program that uses interaction with video games for fitness.

The YMCA opened the arcade briefly Friday to show off its new equipment, which includes four arcade-sized "Dance Dance Revolution" video game consoles, Expresso stationary bikes with 3-D video screens, an XR Board for simulated surfing and skateboarding through a PlayStation 2 gaming console, and interactive Nintendo Wii games in which the game on screen reacts to players' body movements.

Gary Nowading, executive director of the Penn Hills YMCA, said the equipment was meant to draw kids used to playing video games into a regular exercise routine.

"I thought it would be a good fit in terms of fighting childhood obesity, a good opportunity to get kids away from sitting in front of the TV," he said.

"Kids can still play games while they're doing a stationary bike or they can play 'Dance Dance Revolution.' They can play Wii Boxing or Wii Fit. It's all part of the XRKade experience."

Mr. Nowading said XRKade will help the YMCA expand existing programs that address childhood obesity by drawing "tweens" -- ages 9-12 -- to the center for physical activity.

The center features an after-school program that promotes healthy eating and has an exercise component, but the arcade has the possibility of reaching a wider range of youngsters.

"We figure we can get those who are too old for baby-sitting, but too young to go into the fitness center," Mr. Nowading said.

"XRKade is another tool for us to target different age groups -- younger kids and older kids as well, where our after-school program has been confined to fifth grade and under."

Although the arcade is directed toward young people, Jay Hope, associate executive director of the YMCA, noted that Nintendo Wii games were often used by more mature adults to sharpen hand-eye coordination and to improve flexibility.

He also said the games with mountain trails and city skylines on 3-D backgrounds could encourage people to graduate from stationary bicycles to riding bikes outside on one of the region's many trails.

Whatever the case, Mr. Hope said he would be happy as long as the program gets people moving one way or another when it opens to the public in two weeks.

"That's the hope that they can eventually use bikes outdoors," he said. "But they're already actively working and exercising while they play the game."


Deborah M. Todd can be reached at dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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