Push the kids away from the video games, mom and dad. It's your turn now.
And don't worry. Playing the latest crop of videos won't make you go soft around the middle - they could make you leaner and stronger.
Thanks to software developers who have crafted slick, new animated video exercise programs for adults as well as youthful gamers, the living room is more than ever a great place to work out.
Unlike traditional VCR and DVD workouts, which feature humans, these new videos offer virtual personal trainers, dance instructors and even meditation, all personalized and easy to use. The video workouts can be popped into Microsoft's XBox, Sony's PlayStation and, in many cases, a personal computer.
Video games, says Brooke MacInnis, spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, an industry trade group, "are sort of the way of the future in fitness."
The new games target regular exercisers who want new options, women (whom the gaming industry has largely ignored) and couch potatoes who haven't heeded more traditional calls to get up and move.
A few leaders have emerged from the small crop of fitness video games released this year. Yourself!Fitness features Maya, a virtual personal trainer who not only demonstrates moves and exercises with you, but will also customize a program tailored to your needs.
Maya can lead you through yoga, Pilates, cardio- and strength-training workouts, and the routines can increase in intensity. The game also offers a choice of workout music and settings.
PlayStation's Dance Dance Revolution, and its cousin, Dance Dance Revolution Extreme, may be old-school to the teen set, but local personal trainers like Kim Resnick of Federal Hill Fitness say they're a great way to get people moving.
The games, available for most computer consoles, use pop singles and a dance pad with instructional arrows to teach users choreographed dances. The more correct moves you make, the better your score. Start with the beginner level, then advance to "maniac."
If your body craves calm, a Colorado-based company offers Wild Divine, an interactive game that uses imagery and biofeedback to help you meditate and relax. Finger sensors hook you to the game, which claims to harness the "power of your thoughts, feelings, breath and awareness" to guide you through mystical landscapes and enchanted forests.
The makers claim that by monitoring your heart rate and body temperature, you can learn to lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
Fitness-related animation is nothing new, says Al Valente, president of www.fitcommerce.com, a Web site dedicated to the fitness industry. In the early 1990s, several bike manufacturers introduced cycles that featured screens with dozens of scenarios that riders could watch and simulate while they were riding indoors.
The technology didn't catch on, in part because the equipment was expensive, Valente says. But there always has been a disconnect between fitness professionals - who would rather be moving - and the gaming industry, which succeeds when players are kept in their seats.
At home, "[video-game] technology is just starting to creep in," Valente says. "The jury is still out on whether it will be successful."
According to MacInnis, the fitness industry has no choice but to adapt to its clients' tastes, because one of the fastest-growing populations in gyms is the under-18 crowd - tech-savvy youngsters who demand high quality and aren't put off by the virtual world.
Lutherville-based trainer Stephen Holt believes animation could be useful in health clubs for all age groups. For example, animated characters could demonstrate how to use machines, he says.
But Holt and other personal trainers say no one should expect games to replace instructors and trainers.
An instructor's personality makes or breaks a class, Holt says, adding that it takes a human to do a proper evaluation.
Resnick says that trainers are able to "take into account a person's health history, injuries, weakness," and they are able to evaluate and correct poor form.
The best use for game-based fitness programs, Resnick and Holt agree, is as a supplement for a well-rounded, individualized routine that incorporates cardio activity and strength training, whether at home or at the gym.
For more information about the video games mentioned in the article:
Tailor your workout with Maya, a virtual trainer, who will lead you through yoga, Pilates, cardio- and strength-training workouts. The program, which progresses with your increased ability, can incorporate fitness equipment you may own. It also offers more than 4,500 recipes and a choice of workout music and settings.
The game debuted in October for XBox, and is now available for home computers. It will be available next month for PlayStation.
Dance Dance Revolution
$30 to $60
A modern version of dance lessons that use foot patterns drawn on paper. Exercise to the greatest pop hits, and also learn hip dance moves. Dance Dance Revolution and Dance Dance Revolution Extreme users follow dancers - and arrows - to learn proper dance positions and moves. Follow along with the dance pad on the floor. The Extreme program also lets you customize dance moves.
The games are available for most video-game systems.
PC or Mac users can be transported to another dimension with Wild Divine software. The program uses data from three finger sensors to help users meditate, breathe slowly and relax. Animated mentors - monks, gardeners and a "Lady of the Woods" - guide you through the Sun Realm and help you "build stairways with your breath, open doors with meditation" and "juggle balls with your laughter." The game aims to induce calm and relaxation.