Though Ernie Medina Jr. has never been a gamer or owned a PlayStation, he has brought the latest in video games to the Inland Empire.

Amanda Lucidon / The Press-Enterprise
Above: Chloe Stanton, 6, plays a virtual game next to Catherine Erickson and her son, Brian Kent, 7, at XRtainment Zone in Redlands.

Medina’s mission isn’t just about fun, but also fitness. His 8,000-square-foot XRtainment Zone in Redlands serves as a high-tech laboratory where Medina and other researchers examine the health benefits of video games.

Products like these can be found online at places like Exergame Fitness or Motion Kids. These companies sell the concept of Exergaming as well as provide comprehensive training and installation for this niche market.

Studies already have shown weight loss among teens using Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR, an arcade staple in which players move their feet around a floor pad based on cues given on-screen.

Medina and his team — including researchers from Cal State San Bernardino and Loma Linda University — are studying newer machines in hopes of proving that virtual exercise can be a good thing, especially when it comes to childhood obesity.

“I’m trying to show the health community that this is more than playing games. This is a serious intervention, like a prescription to join a gym or take up walking,” said Medina, a preventative-care specialist at Beaver Medical Group and professor at Loma Linda University’s School of Public Health.

“Exergaming” is a growing niche started by manufacturers trying to make video games more fun. These games go beyond the thumbs, turning the whole body into a joystick to drive a snowmobile and do kung fu. Players must pedal, dance or move their arms faster to keep up with action on the screen.

Some schools have begun using such machines for physical education classes. Once a week at Cram Elementary School in Highland, students work out on DDR and stationary bikes with video game screens, Principal Julie Cinq-Mars said.

Obesity Epidemic

The percentage of young people who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980. Among children and teens aged 6 to 19 years, 16 percent, or more than 9 million young people, are considered overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Right: Meredith Sherwin of Yucaipa, plays a virtual game with her daughter, Sophie Sherwin, 6.

But the medical establishment has been slow to accept exergaming, warning that it’s not enough by itself to curb the number of overweight Americans.

“These video games are certainly helpful, but they’re not going to solve the obesity epidemic because it’s simply too overwhelming,” said Frank Hu, a Harvard professor of nutrition and epidemiology.

Hu’s study of 116,500 women last year showed that people who are physically active but obese are almost twice as likely to die as those who are both active and lean, contradicting the common notion that exercise alone — without regard to weight or diet — is enough to be healthy.

In a sign of acceptance, Inland Empire Health Plan now subsidizes members to attend a seven-week Family Fit class at XRtainment Zone. The class, aimed at overweight children, focuses on wellness, exercise and nutrition.

Family-Friendly Gym

Exergaming has been a tough sell to health care workers, Medina said, but not to the children and adults — even a great-grandmother — who crowd into his virtual gym, with its red walls, flat-screen monitors and black rubber floor.

Medina and his partner, Joel Peterson, have tailored their
virtual gym to appeal to families. Parents join their kids racing Cateye GameBikes up a virtual hillside, matching moves on DDR or Jackie Chan’s Jmat, and whacking lights in a Makato ring.

Far right: Chloe Stanton, 6, throws a hula hoop as her sister Chassidy Stanton, 9, spins one on her hips.

When they’re not working out, they lounge in the smoothie bar or get connected using the gym’s Wi-Fi access. Next month XRtainment Zone will begin offering healthy-cooking demonstrations and group fitness classes, Medina said.

Unlimited memberships are $49 per month; one-day passes are $15.

The best part about “exertainment” is that it can motivate even the most hard-core exercise haters — from children to adults — and that’s what Medina is counting on.

“They jump on these games and start running,” he said.

Twelve-year-old Gunnar Hardy, of Beaumont, plays and works out several times a week with his mom, Diane, who admits that he’s better at the games than she is. Hardy, an occupational therapist, was looking for a place they could go together.

“It offers children who love video games a way to burn some energy, and time passes without them realizing they’re working out. My son sweats and challenges himself,” Hardy said.

The two usually work out for several hours, losing track of time as they race bikes or play DDR. Hardy likes the coordination and rhythm building that comes with the dance game, which has benefited her son.

“It burns a lot of calories and gets you to laugh and you don’t want to stop,” she said.

Meredith Sherwin’s three children, who aren’t allowed to play video games at home, visit XRtainment about twice a week.

As part of their home schooling, Sherwin requires an hour per day of cycling, hiking or other vigorous exercise for Tyler, 12; Spencer, 10; and Sophie, 6. A visit to XRtainment Zone easily counts, she said.

“Before they know it, they’ve worked up quite a sweat cycling to get their vehicle moving on the screen,” said Sherwin, of Yucaipa, who occasionally joins in the fun.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Janet Zimmerman at 951-368-9586 or jzimmerman@PE.com