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The current rage in living rooms across Contra Costa County and the nation is an entertaining sort of video diversion with health-promoting appeal—games that help folks battle the bulge, buff up muscles and beat back boredom while they're at it.

Among the hottest gear for these in-house workouts is the Nintendo Wii system and its compatible software and accessories. With Wii Sports and the Wii remote controller, for example, gamers work out upper extremities by mimicking the actions of swinging a tennis racket, baseball bat or golf club; throwing a jab; or rolling a bowling ball down an alley. The later-generation Wii Fit has nine different games and allows you to set personal fitness goals and track your progress; the Wii Balance Board, which senses your center of balance, helps you build leg muscles, balance and coordination. EA Sports Active affords a more aerobic challenge.

“The Wii is a good way to get you off the couch and doing some activity that will get your heart going,” says Dr. Justin Liu, John Muir Health’s medical director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and a pioneer in the use of Wii gear and games with physical therapy patients (see below). “It can be used as a tool for weight control and overall health. Best of all, the fun factor seems to be universal—across all age groups, for males and females.”

What Is Wii-hab?

Wii-hab is an increasingly popular tool in physical therapy. During video game play, patients with neurological ailments or other medical conditions can practice essential physical movements, boost hand-eye coordination, balance and strength—and have fun. “Patients are grateful,” says Dr. Justin Liu of John Muir Health. “It distracts them from pain or maybe a depressed mood, without being mundane and repetitive.”

Liu, a self-professed techie and longtime video gamer, says he came up with the idea to marry the Wii with rehab in 2007 and began using it with his patients. He debuted its use at John Muir Health after he joined the staff in 2008. The therapy has captured national media attention, and Nintendo tapped Liu to test-drive Wii Fit with his patients before its release. “I’m constantly looking at the technology," he says, "and seeing how I can take it to the next level.”