I’LL TRY ANYTHING ONCE: Exercising With Nothing But An Xbox

I want easy, I want fast, I want (relatively) painless, I want the privacy of my own living room, and -- dare I say? -- I want fun. At least, a little bit of fun. Please.
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Stephie Grob Plante
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I want easy, I want fast, I want (relatively) painless, I want the privacy of my own living room, and -- dare I say? -- I want fun. At least, a little bit of fun. Please.

I quit the gym. I quit the gym and I never felt freer in my life.

Goodbye, astronomical monthly fees I can’t actually afford!

So long, weird dude who wears jeans to bench press what seems like a dangerous amount of weight!

Farewell, other weird dude who nearly climaxes on the elliptical!

But once the euphoria of severing ties with the modified meat factory fades, reality sets in. How do I exercise now?

I don’t want to say I hate exercise. I strongly dislike discomfort. But I, like many people, enjoy the benefits of exercise, and I always feel much better afterward, which probably has more to do with the plain fact that the exercise is finally done than anything else.

So what’s a good way to exercise on the cheap? I tried running (aka “jogging plus frowning”) a few times, but I’m not much for any activity where the journey is purportedly the reward. I attempted a few group fitness classes, but they were miserable experiences, as I’m unfortunately very self-conscious when it comes to physical activity. 

I’m also lazy, clumsy, and easily confused. I want easy, I want fast, I want (relatively) painless, I want the privacy of my own living room, and -- dare I say? -- I want fun. At least, a little bit of fun. Please.

And then I hear some amazing news: I can exercise with an Xbox.

Full disclosure: I don’t play video games. This is not a life choice. I am by no means above Madden or Mario, far from it. My husband has worked in video game journalism for the past six years, so I am intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the industry, the elements of game design, and whatever is The Most Important Thing in Video Games Right Now.

I just don’t understand how the controllers work.

Blame it on my clubbed thumbs.

(Megan Fox shares this hideous physical deformity, apparently, but no word yet on whether she also finds her thumbs  a gameplay hazard.)

(Megan Fox shares this hideous physical deformity, apparently, but no word yet on whether she also finds her thumbs  a gameplay hazard.)

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My video game trouble is one part thumbs, one part thumb-to-brain function. Ability to play a video game is a lot like proficiency in a foreign language, and I am one of those American dolts who is illiterate everywhere but here. They say that learning a new language can increase the size of your brain. So not only do my hands sport stumpy thumbs, but my cranium houses a small, easily stumped thinking-thingy.

My apartment, however, houses an Xbox.

We own a lot of game systems, but the Xbox is the only one I know how to turn on because, for some borderline sadistic reason, my husband insists on using it to access the TV menu. The Xbox also features a nice bonus, the Kinect, which theoretically even the clubbiest of thumbs can maneuver. The Kinect is a motion detector. Simply flail your body in the prescribed fashion, and you’re in the game.

When I learned that Harmonix released the updated Dance Central Spotlight for Xbox One Kinect last month, and that the sequel includes a Fitness Mode “authored to focus on Strength and Cardio!”, I leapt at the opportunity (and subsequently tripped over an ottoman) to guinea-pig myself. I quickly discover in my search for other “exercise games” that the Xbox One also offers a slew of free workouts led by famous trainers under its Xbox Fitness toggle.

What would exercising with nothing but an Xbox feel like? Would moving my booty in the privacy of my own home render me uninhibited enough to see real results? Would I break a sweat and have fun doing it?

THE CONTROL VARIABLE

I designate an exercise DVD I use regularly (and begrudgingly) as a constant to compare against both Dance Central and Xbox Fitness. T25 is a series of ten unique workout routines created by professional hottie with a body Shaun T. ("The ‘T’ stands for ‘Time.’”) My favorite thing about T25 is that it is 25 minutes long. My least favorite thing about T25 is that it is TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES LONG, and those grueling 25 minutes feel like some sort of cruel and unusual punishment for merely living*. (*ice cream) 

Shaun T’s nonstop progression of jumps, burpees, stationary running and jumps leaves me a pink-faced, heaving, sopping sweaty mess, evidence that those 25 minutes are clearly well-spent, albeit brutally.

I commit to three separate days of T25 (“oof”), record the data using a heart rate monitor, and average the results:

TIME: 00:25:00

CALORIES: ~186

AVERAGE HEART RATE: ~137

MAXIMUM HEART RATE: ~166

FAT BURN: ~00:08:00

FITNESS: ~00:17:00

“Calories” is not a measurement I take literally. This figure indicates the estimated energy expenditure based off heart rate tracking, offset by the individual’s height and weight. “Fitness” seems to refer to time devoted to cardio (higher heart rate), and “Fat Burn” pertains to strength training (lower heart rate).

My hope is that I can achieve similar levels of exhaustion from a session with Dance Central, or a workout routine on Xbox Fitness, in a similarly truncated period of time, but without loathing every second.

THE INITIAL CHALLENGES

1. SPACE

Our apartment is small. Its size is typical of New York apartments, but the one thing that most folks with a 12x16-foot living room do not prioritize in the struggle for pseudo-spacious living is a 55-inch TV. (For that, blame this guy, who now says, “It's too big, but I like the IMAX experience.”) 

Our sofa is about 4.5-feet deep. That leaves a mere 7.5-feet of floor space, and that is pushing it as far as the Kinect goes. “Kinect needs to see your entire body,” says the Xbox Support site, and suggests that players stand back “about 4 ft. 7 in.” If I stand back that far I’m practically sitting on the sofa, which I do prefer but sort of defeats the purpose here.

2. ONCE AGAIN, I DON’T UNDERSTAND VIDEO GAMES

My thumbs refuse to remember what the “X,” “Y,” “A,” and “B” buttons mean, fine. But can’t I just channel Michael Douglas in "Disclosure" or Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" and swat and swipe the space between me and the TV to select my options? 

Theoretically yes, but for a non-gamer like me, it’s immensely frustrating. I try to grab at “Play,” I end up hitting “Help,” and then somehow I’ve turned the whole thing off. The grab-and-pull instructions to move to the next page have me batting at the air like I’m battling an invisible fly. And there’s something about my voice that Xbox just doesn’t like. I’ve yelled, “Xbox: GO HOME,” so many times that my neighbors probably think I’m trying to kick out some freeloader crashing on our couch.

Nope. Don’t work.

Nope. Don’t work.

All of this adds time and irritation. But, I admit, the technical difficulties are decidedly less irritating than the gym-related annoyances that pushed me to forgo my membership and attempt this experiment in the first place.

THE EXPERIMENTAL VARIABLES

Let’s start with the raw numbers, averaged from three different Dance Central Spotlight sessions:

TIME: 00:25:00

CALORIES: ~166

AVERAGE HEART RATE: ~125

MAXIMUM HEART RATE: ~145

FAT BURN: ~00:21:15

FITNESS: ~00:03:45

Clearly, T25 gets the heart rate up much higher and over longer periods of time. However, the difference of 20 “calories” is pretty negligent. T25 may be a more intense cardio workout, but Dance Central Spotlight does its due diligence in the strength-training department.

I must say: I’m pleasantly surprised. Dancing doesn’t feel like arduous labor, and yet, here are results! I may not walk away from my Dance Central sessions drenched in sweat, but I am collecting concrete evidence that obeying the avatars’ choreography pays off: sore muscles, particularly my thighs and aforementioned booty. Organizing that junk in the trunk is, indeed, work.

There are many knee-heavy, pigeon-toed moves, so folks with knee issues (myself included) should be mindful, and perhaps consider wearing a neon knee brace like the lead avatar’s.

And, be forewarned: the program contains “Mild Lyrics.”

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The free songs -- including “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic and “#thatPower” by will.i.am ft. Justin Bieber -- are not necessarily my jam(s), but it’s hard to complain about free. As I scroll through the song purchase options, I grumble at the glut of current(ish) tracks and dearth of classics. Swipe, swipe, swipe -- WAIT: “Creep” by TLC for $1.99?! I hadn’t planned on buying anything, but…sold.

With one solid tune and a wealth of moves like “Niece,” “Rejectin,” and “Pros and Cons,” my childhood aspiration of becoming an In Living Color Fly Girl -- a very real, very unattainable dream -- feels within reach, at least from the confines of my 12x16 living room.

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First, my average stats from three unique Xbox Fitness workouts:

TIME: 00:34:00

CALORIES: ~196

AVERAGE HEART RATE: ~120

MAXIMUM HEART RATE: ~152

FAT BURN: ~00:28:20

FITNESS: ~00:15:40

The Xbox Fitness menu lists a whole slew of celeb-trainer hosted routines, including Jillian Michaels, Shaun T (!), and Tracey Anderson. Some of these workouts are free, and others cost around $9.99 each.

I brace myself, and submit to two of Jillian Michaels’ freebies, “Ripped in 30” and “Extreme Shred & Shed.”

Once again, I’m impressed by the results and fun factor. Her routines do run a bit longer than T25 (and longer than the 25 minutes I assign to Dance Central), but I appreciate that warm-up and cool-down are both included in the fitness time. The extra ten minutes is worth it if it can prevent injury.

Am I now totally “ripped”? Did I “shred” AND “shed”? Well, I’ve only just started, but these are two workouts I will definitely repeat. Michaels prescribes a circuit-training regimen that is challenging enough to keep your heart pounding, but doable in a small space with limited equipment. (Light weights and a mat only.)

My favorite Xbox Fitness offering, however: Gatorade Sports Performance Football Training Camp with JJ Watt. The Houston Texans defensive end submits to instruction from his longtime strength and conditioning coach, Brad Arnett. The Agility, Stamina, and Strength routines are passable, but the real sell of the series is the on-screen chemistry between Watt and Arnett. The pair has trained together since Watt’s sophomore year of high school, and I love that the past ten years sounded exactly like this:

ARNETT: “Make sure you load up on carbohydrates one hour before training.”

JJ Watt depletes what looks like a Go-Gurt and tosses it off-camera.

WATT: “Don’t worry about me. I got this on lock.”

ARNETT: “We’re looking for height.”

WATT: “Whatever.”

WATT: “It’s almost like a box jump!”

ARNETT: “He’s been good with box jumps in the past.”

ARNETT: “Let’s go, Big Time!”

WATT: “I like that.”

You can’t script this stuff. It’s comedy gold.

Dream Team.

Dream Team.

Although the Xbox Fitness options are not necessarily games per se, the app frames these workouts as interactive gameplay, providing far more amenities than an exercise DVD. A sort of body heat map appears in the upper right corner and shows you which muscles you are currently focusing on. A wheel surrounding the amount of time left in a given move turns green when you’re really rocking it, encouraging you to continue at that level of intensity, and points are allotted for successful completion of each series. Finally, a bar appears on the bottom of the screen to compare your stats with others in your body/age group, lending that sort of “multiplayer” effect.

As with all video games, I have no idea what any of the points on Xbox Fitness mean. And, it’s near impossible to rewind, pause, or fast-forward.

Still, if you (or someone in your house) already own an Xbox One with Kinect, and if you (or your Xbox benefactor) is signed into Xbox Live Gold, the free routines are free! You can’t beat free!

THE VERDICTS

Dance Central Spotlight : 1.5 clubbed thumbs up

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Xbox Fitness : 2 clubbed thumbs up

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Dance Central Spotlight is certainly more carefree, but Xbox Fitness offers greater variety of routines, and the crucial added element of incorporated cardio. Together, they make a solid team.

Thanks to my Xbox Exercise Experiment, I’m still happily gym free. I’ve decided to put my overworked and scratched T25 DVDs on hiatus, and alternate between dance and football instead.

Basically, I’m living the dream.

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