DETROIT - On most days, at 3:30 a.m., Sherry Bridson wakes up and heads to her TV, where for the next 90 minutes, she plays a video game.
This is how she has lost 98 pounds - and counting.
"I feel fantastic," said Bridson, 49, who is just 19 pounds away from the 130-pound goal-weight the video game assigned her. "I have much more energy."
Bridson is a Wii Fit success story, and part of a growing wave of people who bypass traditional workout methods and use interactive exergaming to get in shape.
Three years ago, Dance Dance Revolution transitioned its frenetic arcade game into a successful at-home version for PlayStation.
Now, walk down any video game aisle, and you'll see not just the Wii Fit and DDR, but the Biggest Loser exergame from the TV show, a Jillian Michaels line of games compatible with Nintendo DS and Wii; yoga and Pilates-based games; and even fitness coaching games.
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), which named technology-based fitness one of its top 10 trends of 2009, Wii Fit has sold more than 21 million units since its launch in 2007. Even Oprah Winfrey's trainer, Bob Greene, is endorsing an exergame - EA Sports: More Workouts - for Wii Fit.
Some, like Bridson, swear by these games, saying they help make fitness fun and get people who are not exercising to start.
They're becoming so popular that ACE commissioned a series of studies in the last three years to look at whether the games offer a worthwhile workout. The most recent, a study conducted with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, showed less than six-pack-producing results.
"Doing the real thing is always better in terms of return on that investment," said Cedric Bryant, the ACE chief of science. "You can't perfectly simulate the activity that the game mimics."
ACE is a nonprofit that helps people make smart fitness choices and encourages them to get active. It also certifies personal trainers and other fitness professionals. It partnered with university research teams to conduct the studies, which it fully funded. Those studies found that Dance Dance Revolution offers the best video game workout; Wii Sports was second-best. They called the popular Wii Fit the most ineffective.
Of course, much depends on how much the user puts into it, Bryant said. And he points out, something is better than nothing.
"What you can do is look at it as part of an overall workout program," he said. "For a person who traditionally works out pretty hard already, the Wii could be a great exercise for a recovery day."
Trainer Jennifer DiDonato said there was a market for things like the Wii Fit, and that no matter what workout plan you follow, much of your success will come from your mental commitment.
"It's funny," said DiDonato, who owns Made Fit personal training based in Sterling Heights, Mich. "People in the general population are convinced that the problem is time, money, junk food, and expensive gym equipment and memberships. But the reality is, the problem lies within our motivation to make health and fitness work for us."
Michaels, the celebrated trainer from The Biggest Loser, said getting into the exergaming arena was rewarding because she once was an overweight gamer herself. Her new game line, Fitness Ultimatum 2010, allows users to customize their workout and get simulated one-on-one training from Michaels. On the Wii version, which uses a balance board, it can track how closely users mimic Michaels' movements.
"The game offers immediate and accurate feedback following each rep completed, so the player can correct their movements, thus attaining a successful workout," Michaels wrote in an e-mail. "The DS version ... allows players to train anywhere at any time. This puts to rest the No. 1 excuse for not working out, which is lack of time."
Bridson wasn't a fan of repetitive DVDs. Nor did she care for gyms or group fitness classes. So her husband bought her a Wii Fit, and Bridson decided the only time she would commit to working out was before she left for her job as a child-care provider at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, Mich.
She started with 30 minutes and worked up to her 90-minute routine. Whatever studies prove, Bridson said the possibility of finding success in exergaming is right in her waistline - she hasn't been so thin since 1981.
"It has a lot of options," she said. "Like if I wanted to do just all yoga or strength or play balance games to be active, I could do any of those for just one day. Or I mix it up. I think it's the amount of options I like."