See this guy? That is how I usually spend my time on the sofa. I work 10 (or 12) hours, then hit traffic for two or three more, and by the time I'm home I just want to sit silently in front of a television, zombiefied by a litany of reality shows or sitcoms, dinner, and a cocktail or two.
However, I'm not impervious to New Year's resolutions, so this year I put "get fit" at the top of my list, like a lot of you, I'm sure. But, I'm too broke for pay a personal trainer in Los Angeles or to buy one of those huge 10-DVD workout programs that are so enticing and come from two of the country's hottest gay trainers, The Biggest Loser's Jillian Michaels and Insanity master Shaun Thompson.
But my 9-year-old nephew had the idea that turned me around, and my fitness salvation came, of course, via video games.
Dance Central 3, an Xbox 360 game that works with a Kinect attachment that scans your body, makes you move and rewards you with points and other validation when you're doing the moves correctly. Dance Central is the top-selling dance franchise, and it works both in solo mode and in party mode, with up to eight people.
The thing is, when the kid popped in Dance Central 3 to show it off, I had no idea how thrilling (and subtextually queer) exercise could be. The soundtrack has 40 new tracks (you can combine songs from all three version of Dance Central if you want) and offers a wide variety of music, including classic disco ("Turn the Beat Around" and "I Will Survive"), cheesy dance faves ("Macarena," "Sexy and I Know It," and "Ice, Ice, Baby"), and modern club hits ("Wild Ones," "Boyfriend," "Firework"). Yes, even "Gangam Style." And as soon as the music came on, everyone -- from the toddlers to the not-so-young blue-collar dads at the house that day -- wanted in on the action. We danced for maybe six hours before dropping, sweaty and exhausted, onto the sofa, only then realizing we were "exercising."
I figured if Dance Central 3 was that fun, perhaps getting fit with the Kinect for Xbox 360 games might be worth a test run. And it was. Essentially, the Kinect, for anyone unfamiliar, is like a video camera that scans your body and monitors your movements as you follow along with the characters or images on-screen. In Dance Central, you literally do the dance moves of your mirror image; in others you workout alongside yourself.
Unlike Dance Central, NBA Baller Beats feels like a game made for real athletes -- or, at least, people with more hand-eye coordination than I have. The first full body motion-based NBA video game lets you (dare I say, expects you) to work the ball like a pro. The game comes with an official NBA game ball replica, you choose your favorite NBA team to follow, and you're supposed to bounce the ball to the beat of any one of 30 songs (hip-hop and rock, though you'll find Lady Gaga and Queen on the list). There are three difficulty levels, but here's the drill: It's not just ball bouncing, even at the easiest "rookie" level. That part I managed fairly well, even though I had to kneel on the ground in order to keep "dribbling" to the beat.
But the game also challenges you to master ball-handling skills that you'd see at a real Lakers game (and as much as I dreamed of becoming a Harlem Globetrotter when I was 7, I pretty much stopped practice that same year after I found out they didn't let girls in). So when the game would combine dribble with pump fakes, crossovers, flow dribble, and other moves (all of which I had to Google in order to name), my Xbox approval rating really plummeted. At one point my copilot began throwing the ball in the air (to compensate for the inability to keep up with the beats) and did better than I did.
Some cool parts of the game: In multiplayer mode you can go head-to-head against up to eight players (though I never would), along the way you unlock posters and trading cards with the NBA players' greatest moves, and all along you get tips from two-time NBA champion Kenny Smith. The best part? The Kinect camera takes photos of you playing Baller Beats, which you can then upload from Xbox Live to Facebook. Of course, that's only the best part if you don't look as foolish as I did last night. (And perhaps if I had this game when I was 8, like the kids in this video, I'd have grasped it a bit more quickly.)
The new Nike+ Kinect Training, though, is worth the price of a gym membership alone. If you wants to get fit but do it in the convenience of your home (or in the middle of the night, when many gyms aren't open), you can now buy an Xbox 360 Nike+ Kinect Training Bundle, which comes with a 4G Xbox 360 console, Kinect sensor, two games -- Nike+ Kinect Training and Kinect Adventures -- and a one-month Xbox Live Gold membership for under $300.
I tried the Nike+ Kinect and think it may be one of the best fitness programs you can find. No wonder its fans have become so slavishly devoted that there's a Facebook page, a user hashtag (#MyMoment), a mobile app (yes, you can track and share workout info with other users), and celebrity video diaries of athletes like Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson and NFL wide receiver DeSean Jackson using Nike+ Kinect Training to work out.
What's so great? It's a personalized workout, so no two players will get exactly the same experience. (Multiple people can, of course, use the same game, though.) The Kinect will scan your body and use your personal information (including weight and birth year) and an assessment test (to test skill, speed, dexterity -- all of which I did not excel at) to come up with the smartest fitness routine for you. You can specify the type of training you want, strengthen or tone, for example, and the program will guide you through exercises and cardio drills that are attuned to your abilities and goals.
I got to choose between two trainers who guided me through proper technique and are never frustrated by my inability to master a squat thrust. They're as real as you can get (in that uncanny Valley way) and offer lots of feedback and encouragement to keep you going and, if you can't, you can use the voice command to ask for a time out. I've used the Nike+ religiously since I got it, have never gotten bored, but have also never excelled beyond it as well. It's a game that, if judging by its fans, can be adapted to different skill levels, including very advanced athletes (yes, I'm talking about all you grrrl jocks out there) who wouldn't be caught dead on the treadmill next to me. Where Dance Central 3 is pure fun, Nike+ Kinect Training feels like serious fitness work.
Lastly, I tested out Zumba Fitness Core, a dance fitness workout that partly re-creates the real-life phenomenon that combines sexy trainers with sexy, high-energy Latin beats and throngs of (mostly) gay men and (mostly) straight women. Zumba has grown so much in popularity (it's the Jazzercize of the modern era) that live Zumba workout gatherings can be so enormous that, in some cases, over a hundred people show up to one class. No, thank you.
Not so with the at-home Zumba workout. I got sexy trainers (including Gina Grant, Tanya Beardsley, and Zumba creator Beto) who guided me through 30 routines that are as fast-paced and frenetic as they are in person. Again, the Kinect lets you dance controller free and see yourself on-screen, and you can rotate among 30 dances and 40 songs (some of the highlights: the Donnas, Kat DeLuna, and Enrique Iglesias). And, as you probably know from the commercials, Zumba works your abs like a million crunches, so after I managed to make it through a few songs I had to sit in a hot tub waiting for my abs to recover along with my breath. They did, and I got back up on the horse, er, Xbox 360, to do it all over again. Just not with the Beat Ballers. That game is for hardier stock than I.