Why Active Video Games Don’t Make Kids Exercise More

The problem with exercise games is that to benefit, you actually have to play them

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It wasn’t so long ago that researchers reported that letting kids play video games — active “exergames,” that is — could help them burn energy. Now the latest study shows … maybe not so much.

The study, reported in the journal Pediatrics, involved 78 children ages 9 to 12 whose body mass index was in the 50th to 99th percentile. Scientists led by Tom Baranowski at Baylor College of Medicine gave some of the kids a Wii console and exercise games, such as Dance Dance Revolution, EA Sports Active and Wii Sports, to play at home. Other kids got inactive video games like Madden NFL 10 and Super Mario Galaxy.

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The hope was that when given the choice, kids who got the active games would play them enough to boost their quota of daily activity. But over the 13-week study, the researchers found that physical activity levels between the groups were no different. Based on measurements from accelerometers that tracked the kids’ activity for five weeks, the two groups showed similar levels of activity on average.

Previous studies done in the lab setting have shown that children playing exergames could get as much exercise as they would in a phys-ed class. But those kids were compelled to play the games in the lab, whereas in a real-world setting, children have lots of other distractions to contend with — they simply may not be as motivated to play the games.

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Or, it’s possible that kids do play the games at home, just not enough to log a net gain in exercise. They might play vigorously for a short while, for example, but then spend the rest of their day on the couch sedentary.

That suggests that in the real world, simply having active video games around doesn’t necessarily mean that kids will get any significant amount of exercise, Baranowski says. “It doesn’t appear that there’s any public health value to having active video games available in stores,” Baranowski told the Los Angeles Times. “Simply having those active video games available on the shelf or at home doesn’t automatically lead to increased levels of physical activity in children.”

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There may still be hope for exergames, however, since the children in the study expressed interest in playing them and said they had fun trying sports virtually that they wouldn’t have otherwise played in real life. But — and there’s no real surprise here — most kids probably won’t be switching on these good-for-them games on their own. For that, they’ll need some coaxing from Mom and Dad.

Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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