Review: EA Sports Active 2 for Kinect

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fat white guy. I don’t have to buy an extra seat for my blubber when I fly, but I’ve got a good 30 pounds I could lose. I do a fair amount of walking: to work, to the store, and so on. I’ve been pretty fit several times in my life, and then something has changed (e.g. my geographical or economic situation); bad habits creep back in, and I start eating poorly and being pretty sedentary. Given the choice between playing Fallout and going for a bike ride, I find myself walking all over the Mojave Wasteland shooting Radscorpions while thinking “You know, I really should get outside right after I finish this quest.”

Currently, I live in a rural town in the Texas desert, with no prospect of having a personal trainer for motivation...unless you count the various dogs whose owners let them roam about town chasing the handful of pedestrians. They occasionally inspire a good cardio workout, but I really need something more structured and less likely to end in a trip to the ER for 100 stitches and a rabies test.

To this end, I picked up a copy of EA Sports Active 2 for Kinect. It comes with some additional goodies that piqued my curiosity: a heart monitor that sends your heart rate information straight to the Xbox, and an Xbox-green resistance band for adding some upper-body training.

I started off with only about 6 feet of space between me and the Kinect, and a sofa to the right of me. I learned my lesson pretty quickly; my experience is that you really need about 8 feet between you and the Kinect. You'll also wind up moving side-to-side a lot in some of the exercises, so make sure you've got about 3 feet to either side of you when you start. This helps prevent you from inadvertently creating exercises like Side-to-Side Sofa Jumps, or Table Smash Faceplants.

There are a couple of multi-week workout programs available: a 3-week cardio program, and a 9-week program geared toward helping you improve your overall fitness. You can choose from Easy, Medium, or Hard intensity workouts and also choose a workout schedule. For the 9-week program at least, you can't set a schedule that has you working out more than 4 days in a week. You can still workout on rest days by creating a custom workout or choosing one of the pre-defined workouts, but it doesn't count toward the program.

I started with the 9-week fitness program, and figured that since I do a fair amount of walking and a little bicycling that the Medium intensity would be about right for me. EA and I apparently have different definitions of "medium", but more on that later.

You've got a choice between male or female personal trainers who'll show you how to do exercises and provide feedback. I figured that even in a virtual setting, I'd rather spend my time listening to and looking at a woman, so I chose Niki. You also add in some information about your height, weight, and age. I was honest in all regards on this one. Unlike Wii Fit, which is perfectly happy to tell you how obscenely fat you are and make your avatar the size of a blue whale out of what I can only describe as a cold spite, EA Sports Active 2 won't judge you. Yet.

When the workout starts, you're told how many exercises there are going to be, how long it will last, and approximately how many calories you'll burn. I hadn't done a real workout in a long time, and seeing that I had 27 exercises coming up for this session, I went ahead and dialed "91" on my phone, and set it on the floor; this would make it easier for me to dial the extra "1" when I collapsed in cardiac arrest on the floor. Fortunately, it didn't happen this way.

You start with some warmups. The first time you encounter a specific exercise, you'll see a brief tutorial on how to do it. Next, the instructor (Niki, for me) will show you how to do it once and then you're told to start. The warmups are nice and pretty low-intensity.

Once the warmups are complete, you'll get started with the real exercises. Remember where I mentioned that I chose a Medium intensity workout? This is where I found out I'm too much of a wuss for EA's medium. In the 9-week program, you'll have a variety of exercises to do: squats, running, sprinting, side-to-side jumps, push ups, mountain biking (which involves doing squats while riding down hill, jumping up on jumps, and running in place to pedal up hills), soccer drills (kicking and goalkeeping), and so on. There are a few cooldown exercises at the end, so when you see that you have 7 exercises remaining, you really only have about 3 or 4 before you start the much less intense cooldown.

From what I can tell, the Intensity level manages the number of reps or duration of each exercise. After being told to jump from side-to-side for what seemed like forever, running two laps around a virtual track, and realizing instead of asking me to do 16 squats, she might has well have been asking me to do 1600, I quit the workout, having burned a little under 100 calories and worked out for no more than about 12 minutes. As I lay there in a sweaty, breathless pile of bones and blubber on the sofa, I realized I was no Medium.

I switched the intensity of the next workout to Easy. Once again, I had to quit about halfway through, but on the 3rd or 4th day of the session, I made it all the way through, having to only skip a couple of exercises where I just couldn't do all the reps (I've always had remarkably strong legs, but skinny arms, so pushups aren't easy for me). So, from an endurance standpoint, it's actually working for me. I feel good after I manage to catch my breath and drink some water. It's not quite the same as having a real live personal trainer to be accountable to, but it's actually pretty good. And since people like bullet points and summaries, here's you go:

The Awesome

Tracking: The Kinect can really track your body well if you have the right amount of space, even when you're doing exercises that are on the floor, like pushups, crunches, or having an asthma attack. You can't cheat the Kinect the way you can the Wii, and I like that level of bullshit detection; it keeps me approximately honest.

Heart Monitor: Seeing your heart rate on the screen is great, so you have some sort of visual indicator of how hard your body is working. A couple of times, I've hit over 200bpm, which is a little scary, so I relaxed a little bit. I sort of hoped for an animated graphic of my heart exploding.

Resistance Band: After you take a few minutes to figure out how to put the thing together, it's cool. It's not a perfect substitute for free weights (which you can use if you have them), but it does add some upper body exercise to things like squats, and you even do bicep curls occasionally.

Variety: The variety of exercises is nice. Every few minutes, you're going to do a different exercise, and you will likely repeat a couple of the exercises during the session. But there are a lot of different exercises available, and even after a couple of weeks, I still find exercises I haven't done before. This is great.

Charts and metrics: You get a good summary of how hard you worked out: heart rate, time, number of calories burned, and so on. When you're sitting down drenched in sweat at the end of the workout, it's kind of reassuring to get that sort of feedback on your progress.

Music: I didn't use my own music, but I saw that that feature is built in, which is cool. It comes with a few different musical styles you can use. None are really my taste, but so far I've found that I'm so focused on not passing out that I essentially tune the music out.

Swearing: While I'd never be rude to a human physical trainer, when I'd get frustrated with the program or the feedback I was receiving, I'd unleash a hate-filled torrent of profanity at Niki because, hey, I can't hurt her feelings and she's not going to call security and get me banned from the facility. It's cathartic.

The Annoying

Getting Lost: Occasionally, standing in a perfectly empty room in the range of the Kinect sensor, you'll just get lost. The game gets paused, and if you're lucky, you'll just be told to press A to continue. If you're unlucky, it'll have forgotten who you are and you'll have to confirm your identity. This seems to happen most often at the beginning of an exercise, and can result in the torrent of hate-filled profanity mentioned above when you're tired and just trying to push through. I did find that no matter what exercise you're going to do, and what the initial position is going to be, it helps to stand up still, looking at the Kinect sensor for a few moments at the beginning of the exercise, until the program tells you to get into position. This seems to help ensure that the Kinect knows where you really are to begin with.

Positioning: For a couple of days, I called Niki all sorts of horrible names over split squats. I'd see my avatar in position, but the rep wouldn't get counted. I couldn't do this exercise successfully, and skipped it every time it came up. It's a good thing the Kinect is a controller-free system, else I might have ended up having to fetch it from a broken LCD screen. The ultimate cause? The exercise required me to start with my left leg out, which wasn't natural for me. Apparently, listening to instructions isn't natural for me, either, or I'd have listened to this bit every time the exercise began and avoided the swearing. Once I assumed the starting position required by EA Sports Active 2, my reps registered correctly. You wouldn't have this drawback with a human trainer, so I find it mildly annoying. When the program tells you to start with your left or right side, it means it.

Tracking: The front-to-back jumps are, to me, a low spot in the tracking. I can't do this exercise without Niki telling me I'm jumping in one spot (I'm not). Similarly, some of the other jumping-related activities don't seem to track as well as others. Also, on some of the activities that require movement from one side of the screen to the other (goalkeeping, in particular), it's occasionally difficult to just how far you have to move in the room to get to an equivalent point on the screen.

Feedback: I mentioned that Niki keeps telling me how jumping in one spot isn't going to help me, even though I'm making a foot or so in distance on the forward-back jumps. Worse, she won't let up. She'll keep telling you this, over and over again periodically til you want to strangle her with your resistance band. Sometimes you need a minute to figure out what the hell you're doing or doing wrong, and she's over there on your fancy TV bitching at motivating you. Again, a human trainer would step in and help you out, but not Niki. She's loudly judging you. Overall, the feedback is a good thing, but sometimes, you just want a damn minute.

Pauses: Occasionally, you're told to take a water break, which is good. But you absolutely cannot pause the workout when it's in the tutorial phase, or when it's loading the next exercise, which is exactly when I want to pause. Look, I made it through all your split squat jump repeats without passing out, just let me pause where the hell I want, and not make me have to remain conscious for another 30 seconds before I can pause.

Overall, it's a very well done program that'll add a real-deal workout to your life without the expense of a personal trainer. I like it.1

  1. Cover image by Nelson. Licensed under Creative Commons