Want Your Kids to Exercise? Let Them Play Video Games!

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It’s a win-win for parents and kids: if you’re having trouble convincing your kids to follow the government’s advice to get moving, a new study suggests you can just leave them alone with their video games.

Okay, so not all video games can boost children’s exercise levels, but the latest research shows that games that require the most physical activity are enough to help youngsters break a sweat and reach recommended levels of moderate to vigorous activity.

Scientists at Brigham Young University and the University of Massachusetts report Monday in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine that activity-based video games, better known as “exergames,” can help children expend at least as much energy — and with some games, even up to twice as much — as walking on a treadmill.

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While previous studies have documented the benefits of games such as Dance Dance Revolution and others on the Wii and PlayStation systems, study co-author Bruce Bailey, a professor in exercise sciences at Brigham Young, wanted to learn more about how much impact the games could have on children’s fitness. “We were interested in what can children get out of them,” he says. “If they chose the right games and the right levels, could they improve their energy expenditure enough so they might have a positive impact on body weight and body composition?”

It turns out they can. Compared to the energy they used while remaining sedentary for 15 mins. in the lab, the 39 boys and girls in the study burned up to seven times as much energy after 10 mins. of playing the various exergames. Bailey and his co-author Kyle McInnis of University of Massachusetts studied six exergames, three that are popular on the consumer market, and three that are used widely in commercial children’s fitness centers and schools.

Wii Boxing, the researchers found, involved the least energy investment, requiring as much as walking on a treadmill for 10 mins. The other five games tested, which included Dance Dance Revolution, Cybex Trazer Goalie Wars, LightSpace Bug Invasion, Sportwall and Xavix J-Mat, involved, in order, increasingly greater levels of energy expenditure. Kids used twice as much energy when they used the Xavix system, on which they played sports or games on a mat that detected their movements, as when they walked on the treadmill.

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Not only were the participants using more energy than when on a treadmill, but when Bailey and Innis asked the youngsters about how much they liked the games, not surprisingly they were all enthusiastic about the play. “We can put kids on a treadmill, but the likelihood over a long period of time is that it will be difficult to keep the children focused and interested,” says Bailey. “If we use something like [exergames], where they want to participate and want to be involved, I think it might benefit both them and everyone trying to deal with the issue of improving physical activity levels.”

The study is among the first to document that exercise during exergaming can reach levels of what experts define as moderate or vigorous physical activity, and the next step is to start testing these programs in schools to determine whether they can have a real impact on children’s physical activity levels. Bailey was particularly encouraged by the fact that the overweight children in the study liked the exergames the most, which suggests that the video games could be an effective way to entice heavier children to start becoming more active. “If these activities can increase energy expenditure, they can reach some children who might not otherwise be reached by traditional PE programs,” he says.

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Tests in school systems will also help researchers get a better idea for how lasting the benefits might be. Children are notoriously fickle after all: they may become enamored of new and different exergame-based programs, but then may quickly tire of them, just as they get bored of the rote nature of physical education classes. In an editorial accompanying the study, James Sallis, a psychologist at San Diego State University, notes:

The effect on energy expenditure and health outcomes is determined by the frequency, intensity, duration and types of games used in everyday life. Findings to date regarding this topic indicate that regardless of how frequently adolescents play the games when they first obtain them, use typically declines within a few weeks or months.

As with any program aimed at children and teens, the key to exploiting the benefits of exergames may be in holding students’ attention long enough to get them hooked on physical activity in general. By starting them out on video games, the hope is that kids will start to want to engage in other kinds of physical activity, such as sports or other organized activity outdoors. At some point, once children get bored with simulating exercise indoors, health officials hope they’ll be motivate to get outdoors and do the real thing.

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