Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review of EA Sports Active for Wii

Well, this is the week a lot of us Wii fitness folks have been waiting for: the release of EA Sports Active. I've been a fan of EA Sports titles for years, having enjoyed games like John Madden Football, Tiger Woods Golf, and NBA Live for years on the PC and consoles like the Playstation. The question, of course, is whether EA Sports can take their great talents and skills in developing couch potato sports games and parlay it into a great game for working out to rival the Wii Fit and other games in that genre. The answer is a resouding yes.

The box came impeccably packaged, as they always seem to from Amazon. Inside shrinkwrapped plastic....

amazon box ...was a beautiful pristine new box. The size of the box was a little smaller than I thought it'd be, having been spoiled by the Wii Fit box.

ea sports active box Opening the contents of the box, I was a little taken aback. Again, I had been spoiled by the Wii Fit, where opening the box was like Christmas morning, with the space-age balance board and all the accessories that come with it. This was a little more subdued, with two bags and a game case.

ea sports accessories in bags Opening all the pieces in the bag, at first I wasn't too impressed. There were two straps, a piece of velcro, what looked and smelled like a gigantic rubber band, and what turned out to be a leg strap.

ea sports active accessories unwrapped But I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to the good folks at EA, so I followed the instructions to construct the giant rubber band. The instructions in the booklet aren't the clearest, and the pictures are certainly not large enough to be of much use to anyone, so I figure I'll walk you through the process here.

The first step, like it says in the book, is to lay one end of the giant rubber band over the black strap. The big loop should be facing you (unlike the picture in the instruction manual).

preparing to tie the giant rubber band The next step is pretty simple. Take the big loop and thread it into the little loop, making sure you trap 2-3 inches of the red rubber band inside the knot you're making. Tighten it and you'll come out with this:

tying the giant rubber band Voila, you have what's called a "resistance band". No, it's not some folk rock group or an armed militia of any kind. It's literally a giant rubber band that you'll be using in exercises. Here's a view of what it looks like (pardon my ugly feet)

using the giant rubber band The rubber was so thin I thought for sure it would snap at the first use. But to my shock, it didn't. In fact, as cheap as the materials seemed at first, believe it or not it provided a surprisingly good workout (see the "Upper Body Exercise" section below for details).

The next step was trying on the knee strap. Here's what it looks like from your vantage point after putting it on (pardon my ugly thigh). It's literally a strap that you put on your thigh which carries the nunchuk for certain exercises, such as running. Much more effective than the Wii Fit, where they tell you to "hold the Wiimote or put it in your pocket". Again, more details below on how you use this in actual exercise.

nunchuck holder on leg
Okay, so now we're ready for the game itself.

The creators of EA Sports Active said that they want this game to be to Western styles of exercise as Wii Fit is to Eastern styles of exercise. In other words, while Wii Fit focuses on things like balance and yoga, EA Sports Active would focus on things like strength training, coordination, and motor skills.

When you start the game, it's a lot like other exercise games. You choose a character (it doesn't look like you can use your Mii--instead, you're constrained to looking like a cool fit dude or dudette), you configure your height and weight, you choose your music options, and you choose whether you want a male or female trainer. Like the other exercise games, there's also a calendar you can use to track your progress (one thing I wish a game company would come up with is a consolidated calendar that tracks across games. All of these calendars are useless for those of us who like to mix up different exercise games).

This is where things start to look different. You have the ability to choose from scores and scores of exercises, ranging from cardio exercises, to upper body workouts, to lower body workouts, to sports simulations that help you with coordination and specific skills. You can choose the exercises a la carte (one thing I love is that you can play any exercise immediately, instead of the annoying and overused "play more to unlock" features of Wii Fit and games like that). Or, you can have the Wii pick a ready-made workout regimen for you to target specific goals. There's even a "30 day workout" mode which does all the setup work for you--you just take 20 minutes a day to go through their program.

Here's a sample of some of the games. I'll go through the exercise types.


This is one shortcoming of the Wii Fit. Their cardio exercises are limited to running in place or hula hooping, and believe you me, there's only a certain amount of hula hooping a 39 year old guy can do.

As you can see, your workout always starts with a projection of how many calories you'll burn. Certain games use the Wii Balance Board (but it's by no means required to get the most out of the game). Then, there's a video introduction which shows you exactly how to play the exercise.

The boxing game above was the first I played on EA Sports Active, and as you can see, after a shaky start I really got the hang of it. It used the Nunchuk and Wii-mote for the boxing maneuvers, and the Balance Board to register kicks. Not much cheating here--the system is smart enough to know when you really kick and when you just lift your leg. All in all, a fun and great workout. The controls were surprisingly responsive--I say surprisingly because other games such as Samba Di Amigo and Gold's Gym Cardio didn't register arm movements and punches nearly as accurately. But it looks like the engineers at EA Sports figured it out.

Similarly, the dance game (which are basically step exercises) seemed more responsive than the same game on the Wii Fit. I'm not sure what's goofier, a bunch of Miis dancing or a bunch of cartoonish EA Sports Athletes doing it. Bottom line, all you have to do is not be afraid of looking as goofy as them, and you'll get an exercise that rivals any step class at the gym. I found you can skip the beginning and intermediate exercises and go straight to the expert.

The running game is a lot like the Wii Fit too, only this time you're going around a track. I prefer the Wii Fit's scenery, of course, but the graphics in this one are interesting too. This is a game where you use the knee strap to put the nunchuk by your thigh. It seems to register movements pretty well. The one minor annoyance, if you can call it that, is the overly exuberant coach giving you a bit too much positive reinforcement. I want to hear my coach yelling at me if I fall on my face!

Upper Body
The next series of exercises are for upper body strength, and they use the giant rubber band.

Again, I wasn't expecting too much. I have a weight set at home which I use for most of my upper body workout. Still, I figure I'd give it a shot.

The exercises are a series of curls, shoulder presses, and lifts all using the resistance band. By holding the Wii-mote and Nunchunk in your hand, along with the straps for the resistance band, your virtual trainer can monitor your progress and shout encouragement.

I have to admit, this was much more effective than I thought it'd be. First of all, the rubber band never broke--that's one strong piece of rubber. Secondly, the instructions in the videos were extremely useful in targeting specific muscle groups. After doing a series of exercises I did feel the burn in a muscles I wasn't expecting. I won't say this is a huge tool for massive muscle growth, but it'd definitely great for muscle toning and overall fitness.

Lower Body Exercises
These exercises consist of lunges, squats, and jumps to help your lower body. They use the Nunchuk knee/thigh strap at keep tabs on whether you're doing them properly. The one annoyance with using the Nunchuk was that the cord was always getting tangled up, but that was easily fixed by holding more of the cord in my hands so that too much wasn't dangling.

I found these very effective as well. Very similar to the types of exercises you'll find in a game like My Fitness Coach, but far more effective because of the virtual coach keeping tabs on your progress through the movements of the nunchuk with your thigh. Again, the responsiveness seemed spot-on.

Okay, this is the part I know a lot of you have been waiting for. Yes, EA Sports Active does have a lot of sports games on it.

It's important to set your expectations for these sports games as to what they are and what they aren't. These aren't replacements for console sports games or simulations. If you want to play simulated games, you're still better off with Wii Sports or an upcoming game like EA SPORTS Grand Slam Tennis, especially using the new Wii MotionPlus controller add-on which will greatly improve the performance of your Wii controller (available June 8). Wii Sports Resort also looks like it's going to be a great game (available July 26).

More accurately, these should be considered exercise routines that happen to use sports visuals to make exercising more fun and engaging. As long as you go in with the expectation that it's more of an exercise game than a sports game, you'll be very pleased. Here's a sample of sports:

BasketballThis series of exercises helps you with balance and coordination. With the basketball game, you basically have to take a ball off a cart and then pass or shoot it. The game is more about timing and strength then about accuracy; for example, to shoot the ball you just have to thrust up with enough force and the ball will go in. You can choose to use or not use the Wii Balance Board. Whatever the exercise lacks in fitness value, it makes up for it because it's so fun you'll do it over and over.

Inline SkatingThe inline skating game reminds me of the Wii Fit Skiing game, in that the more you crouch, the faster you go. A nice game for balance control, although again, I'm not sure of the fitness value. What I do know is it shouldn't be long before some troublemaker on YouTube posts a viral video dubbing in flatulence noises every time the virtual trainer raises his leg.

Again, not the most accurate simulation of the sport (to catch a ball, for example, you have to lunge with your arm using the right timing), and there's nothing like the "game simulation" you'd find in Wii Sports, but it's certainly a lot of fun and provides great calesthenics and upper body workout.

Throwing and catching are basically done using upper body arm movements--the repetitive movement is what gets your heart pumping and your arms moving. The picthing game is a load of fun--you basically try to knock down a stack of cans.

Your tennis game is certainly not going to improve with this, but again, these exercises are a great way to get your blood circulating and your upper body moving. You use tennis-like movement to simulate serves, volleys, and smashes. The controls are remarkably accurate, more so than Wii Sports.

Last but not least, there's volleyball. Again, you don't simulate an actual game, but you get a pretty good workout by serving, setting, and bumping. The game controls are very impressive with this one. If you don't time a bump correctly, for example, the ball may end up flying behind you instead of over the net. Similarly, if you don't bump with the right force or at the right angle, you may not make it over the net. It's as realistic as a video game can come to the real thing.


So, my conclusion?

If you were disappointed by the types and amounts of exercise with Wii Fit, Ea Sports Active is going to fill the gap for you. It's still not a substitution for an actual trip to the gym or real sports exercises, but for those rainy days or those days when you're too tired to go out of the house, it's a great and fun way to stay active. As with all fitness games and regiments, you get out of it what you put into it. If you follow the 30-day workout routine strictly, chances are you'll be having fun and getting in shape without even realizing it.

Workout Intensity: * * * * * Fun: * * * * *

Wii Sports Active is available at Amazon.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Day 32 to 37 - Starting up Nutrisystem again

So, this week you could say I was half back on Nutrisystem and half not. I ate out quite a bit, but for the most part I tried to get back on the routine. Here's how it went.

Day 32 (Mon, 5/11)
Breakfast: Apple Strudel Scone (6/10). Like the scone I had a few weeks ago it was a bit dry, but again, maybe that's the way a scone is supposed to taste. It went down very well with English Breakfast tea that I brewed in my Keurig Coffee/Tea Maker. It was certainly one of the more sophisticated breakfasts I've had in a while. It was jolly good.

Lunch: For lunch, I had planned on eating a cup of Black Bean Tortilla Soup, but my boss told us he was taking our team out for lunch. And so I ended up eating a LOT of buffalo wings. Really, really good buffalo wings. And also a steak (11/10).

Dinner: Dinner that night was leftover buffalo wings and steak. So much for getting back on the wagon...

Day 33 (Tue, 5/12)
Breakfast: Got back on the wagon with Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins, and this time in my Keurig I brewed a cup of Lemon Zinger Herbal tea. The muffins had good flavor, but did have the density of hockey pucks. Still, again, they went down smooth with the tea. (6/10)

Lunch: One other thing they do in the office during Mother's Day period is bring in a lot of munchies. And so I did a bad thing by munching on some snacks all morning. Bad snacks like cheetos, potato chips, and my ultimate weakness, SpongeBob Cheez-Its. And so by the time lunch rolled around, I had already eaten a bunch of snacks.

Dinner: For dinner that night, I took my sweetie to a thin-crust pizza place in my town. As bad as this sounds for the diet, the pizza was pretty healthy--one was a margherita pizza with fresh tomato sauce and basil, while the other was loaded with broccoli rabe.

Day 34 (Wed, 5/13)
Breakfast: Wednesday was the first day I was completely, completely back on the diet. For breakfast, I had Egg Frittata from the shelf-stable box. This is one of those "science experiment" Nutrisystem meals. It comes as powder in a pouch. You add water and stir, and then microwave it for 70 seconds, and then you keep microwaving it at 20-second intervals until the liquid is gone. I admit, I was amazed. I had made egg frittata from scratch before (it involved a whole carton of eggs), and this one tasted pretty authentic, with a cheesy flavor and bits of red bell pepper, mushrooms, and other things that made it yummy (9/10).

frittata mix
fritatta done
Lunch: For lunch, I had a Nutrisystem Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar (6/10). Like the other bars, pretty good taste and crunchy texture, I only knock off a point because I'm one of those odd ones don't care for peanut butter in chocolate bars. I did eat more junk in lieu of a properly proportioned Nutrisystem snack, but kept it down to a minimum.

Dinner: For Dinner that night, I went to the shelf-stable box and had Beef and Noodles in Teriyaki Sauce (7/10). As you know the pattern by now, the food itself was not the most appetizing to look at (like all the others, it was basically chunks of food in a brown sauce). But the taste was pretty good, and there were nice sized chunks of chewy beef, water chestnuts, and baby corn.

Dessert: Another ice cream sandwich. Gotta love the ice cream sandwiches.

Day 35 (Thu, 5/14)
Breakfast on Thursday was a mango.

Lunch: For lunch, I finally had the Black Bean Tortilla Soup from the shelf-stable box (6/10). It was one that came in the "instant noodles" type of cup, where you add hot water and let it steep for a few minutes. This was perhaps one of the nastiest looking of the dishes, it was just a gooey brown paste. But then again, maybe that's what Black Bean Tortilla Soup is supposed to look like. The taste was pretty good. Distinctive taste of mashed up beans and crunchy bits of tortilla.

Dinner: I took my sweetie out for her birthday to Nobu in New York that night (it was the first time either of us had been). If you want to go on a diet, this is the place, because you are treated to about 30 bites of food for the same money you'd otherwise use to buy 50 Big Macs. I must say, the food was presented exceptionally, and the taste was fantastic. We got the Fresh Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno Shiromi Usuzukuri (octopus), the Rock Shrimp Tempura with Creamy Spicy Sauce, the Washu, and the Beef Broiled Black Cod with Miso (8/10). And afterwards, we went across the street for a $2.75 slice of pizza :)

nobunobunobunobunobu cod
(if you're not reading the posts and just looking at the pictures, no this is not on the Nutrisystem plan!)

Day 36 (Fri, 5/15)
Breakfast: Friday's breakfast was a Chocolate Chip Granola Bar (7/10). Not bad taste, and nice texture as all their bars go.

Lunch: For lunch, I fixed up from the frozen box another Toasted Ham and Cheese (the one that looks like a Pop-Tart). Still a winner.

Dinner: For Dinner that night, my g/f and I had to find somewhere quick to eat, and I was very, very quick to suggest McDonalds. We've only been going out for a little under two months, so I hope she wasn't too weirded out when I started talking to my Quarter Pounder with Cheese, telling it how much I missed it (12/10).

Day 37 (Sat, 5/16)
Breakfast: Breakfast on Saturday morning was the "Scrambled Egg With Veggie Sausage Crumble" from the shelf-stable box (7/10). This is another one of those "chemistry experiment" meals, where I'd fill up the cup with 1/2 cup of water, pop it in the microwave, and behold, scrambled eggs magically appeared. Unlike the previous scrambled eggs, this one contained "veggie sausage crumble". I'm not sure what this means, but I assume the little chewy bits are meant to simulate sausage but are made of vegetables. In any case, they didn't have much taste, although they had decent texture.

egg powder

Lunch: Lunch was Beans and Ham soup (7/10), which came in the little tin. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from the name and the picture, but the taste was pretty good. It reminded me of eating baked beans, only the sauce was more subtle.

Dinner: For dinner tonight, I'm going to my brother's house for a big birthday party we're having for my nieces. I expect cake and a lot of good food. But I'll keep it to one plate.

So, after a week of no Nutrisystem and another week with off-and-on Nutrisystem, I would have expected my weight to go up. But strangely (and happily), I've shot back down under the Mendoza line again. I'm at 197.8. I think it must be a combination of good eating habits (snacks notwithstanding), and the fact that the nice weather has gotten me exercising more. Let's see if this continues.

I haven't exercised on the Wii in a while, but that will change this coming week when I get EA Sports Active when it's released. Look for a review coming soon.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Day 24 to 31 - Off Nutrisystem for a week

So, because I work for a company that sells flowers, every Mother's Day at our company they will bring in good food for Mother's Day week. The reason is that we tend to work crazy hours (it's typical for me to work from 8 AM to 10 PM), and we need to stay focused on the task of getting flowers to Moms around the country.

So, from a weight gain perspective, this spells trouble in two ways. One, I tend to be very, very sedentary, sitting in a cubicle in front of a computer for hours at a time. Second, the food they bring in is good. Really good. We're talking pizza, pasta, sushi, ribs, chicken, bagels, wings, paninis, sandwiches, and more. And no, I wasn't about to eat stuff out of a cardboard box while all this food was flowing around me. So, I partook.

When I weighed myself on Mother's Day (5/10), I knew I was going to gain weight, but it was just a question of how much. To my surprise, I gained only 2.4 pounds. Sure, it was a step backwards, but it was worth it :) I wonder why I didn't gain more weight, and I realized it was because Nutrisystem had taught me good habits, like not piling on food (as I would do in years past) and thinking twice before loading up on "bad carbs".

Anyway, as of the day after Mother's Day (5/11) , I am back on the wagon.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Day 19 to 23 - Last Nutrisystem Meals before taking a break

Day 19 (April 28)

Day 19 started with berries and multigrain flakes from the shelf-stable box. This was another of those breakfasts that were better than what you buy in the supermarket. The cereal had a rich berry flavor and crunchy flakes (9/10). The portion size was about 1/3 of what I'd normally put in my bowl if I were opening a huge box of cereal. But I was satisfied, so it was another good lesson in portion control.

For lunch, they had pizza at work, so I decided to forego the usual lunch, have a slice, and go back on the wagon. The snack that day was another chocolate brownie.

For dinner, I chose the macaroni and cheese in a cup from the shelf-stable package. I'd call this a 9/10. It was prepared like instant noodles again--just add water and stir. It was creamy, had good taste. The side vegetable that night was sauteed spinach and garlic again, and the dessert was the herb snack mix.

nutrisystem mac and cheeseDay 20 (April 29)

Breakfast on Day 20 was "Nutrifrosted crunch cereal". This is the kind of cereal you'd find if a Kellogg's truck turned over on the highway. It was a combination of something that looks liked "frosted flakes", mixed with bran flakes, mixed with puffed cereal pieces that looked like rice krispies but was a bit more dense (I'm sure soy was involved again). I'd give it a 6/10, probably higher if not for the puffed pieces.

Lunch was Tomato and Corn Chowder in a can. It was thick and rich and had a great taste. (7/10)

Snack in the afternoon were pretzels, but I snacked on some Costco snack mix in the office too.

For dinner, I went to the freezer and chose the tender beef with portobello mushrooms. As with all the frozen entrees, the veggies were tender and fresh again, not like a TV dinner at all. It included carrots, green beans, potatoes. The beef was tender but it wasn't as flavorful as I would have liked, and I couldn't find the portobello mushrooms. (7/10).

nutrisystem beefSnack that night was "chocolate chocolate chip pudding" from the shelf-stable box. This came in as powder in a pouch, with instructions to add 1/2 cup cold water and stir. As a nice touch, they put real chocolate chips in. The texture was fine, but the taste was not very pleasant. (4/10)

nutrisystem chocolate puddingDay 21 (April 30)
Day 21 started with Nutricinnamon Squares cereal. It was like a combination of Cinnamon Chex and frosted flakes, and crunchy bits. Like the last cereal, it was pleasant tasting (7/10).

Lunch was chicken noodle soup. In a bit of bad discipline, I helped myself to CostCo snack mix again.

For dinner, I had chicken pasta parmesian (7/10). Like the other shelf-stable dinners, it was a lot like what you'd get in a can of Chef Boyardee. The star of the evening was the vegetable. I went to AllRecipes and made sauteed asparagus, which was very, very good, especially with the little crunchy bits of garlic. Of course it can be argued that anything with butter and garlic is going to be good.

asparagus and pastaSnack that night was a bag of "Nutrichocolates". These were interesting little penny-shaped chocolate discs. The taste was pretty good taste, but not sure how healthy it was--reading the label, one package had 37% of the USRDA of saturated fat. I was going to joke that this was the one snack I found that didn't have soy, but upon closer examination, I see it does have soy lechithin (an emulsifier).

Having been somewhat sedentary, I went on the Wii and did Golds Cardio for an hour.

Day 22 (5/1)

Breakfast on Day 22 was cereal again. This time, it was Nutriflakes in the built-in bowl again. Still loving that built-in bowl.

For lunch, I decided to go my own way again and have my own lunch. My dear coworker will from time to time give me her extra food :)

Dinner that night was from the frozen box--the Ravioli Formaggia. This one was easily a (10/10). It was incredible, restaurant-quality ravioli with fresh pasta and a texture as if the dough was just made. The ricotta filling was tasty, the very fresh tomato sauce perfectly seasoned.

ravioli and carrots

For the veggies, I prepared braised carrots from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. In a little bit of a crossover between another blog I write, IndoorGardener.Org, I decided to harvest some fresh parsley and use it in my recipe. Again, the vegetable was a star.

Day 23 (5/2)
For Day 23, I started with Two and A Half Pancakes from the shelf-stable box. Like the meatload review below, I'm going to bump the rating down a few notches just because I'm comparing it to something I make pretty well. The pancakes came as a powder which was mixed with water. The texture was fluffy enough, but the taste was a little off, and a little dry. Maybe it's because it wasn't loaded with eggs and butter like I usually make them, but they managed to make an amazing pancake with the frozen version, not so much with the shelf-stable version (6/10). Grapes and apple juice rounded out breakfast.

From 5/3 to 5/10, I'm going to be off the Nutrisystem diet. This is because when I'm not writing this blog, I work at an online flower delivery company. We're starting to ramp up for Mother's Day which of course means two things. First, I am going to be working 12, 14, and up to 16-hour days at the office. This means no biking, no Wii...I'm pretty much going to be sedentary. Secondly, during the holidays, they will bring in very good food to the office. In a way, this will be my first test of eating in "the real world". Stay tuned to see how I do!