Video games that require the player to move around — such as those available on the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinect — could improve children’s health, according to a study published today in the Journal of Pediatrics. The findings suggest that high activity video games could be an effective alternative exercise for children.
Only 18 percent of high school students in the U.S. meet the minimum level of physical activity required to maintain a healthy weight. In addition to other factors, the CDC flags the lack of daily physical activity in schools as a major contributor to the problem of childhood obesity. Research from 2011 based on measures of children’s heart rates established that active video game play, called “exergaming,” can provide children with enough activity to meet the CDC’s guidelines. The current study corroborated those results and further showed that exergaming can improve vascular health in children.
Researchers at the University of Western Australia examined the effects of exergaming on 15 children aged nine through 11, none of whom were overweight or obese. Each child participated in three testing sessions. During the sessions, the children played games of either high or low physical intensity while the researchers assessed their heart rate, energy expenditure, and flow-mediated dilation (a measure of arterial function). For the low intensity game the children played ten-pin bowling on Kinect Sports, and for the high intensity game they played 200m hurdles. After each activity, the researchers asked the children to complete a questionnaire assessing their enjoyment.
In measures of energy expenditure, high intensity exergaming qualified as “moderate intensity” exercise, as established by national guidelines. Low intensity exergaming qualified as “low intensity” exercise. The results indicated that 15 minutes of high intensity exergaming significantly decreased flow mediated dilation (FMD). Impairments in FMD have been linked to hypertension, diabetes, and other cardiovascular risk factors. Low intensity exergaming had no such effect. The children reported that they enjoyed both the high and low intensity activities equally.
The results are encouraging, but not without caveats. First, the sample size of 15 children was too small to allow for any definitive conclusions. Furthermore, the study did not examine the effects of traditional, sedentary video gaming, and so lacked an adequate control to eliminate other potential explanations for the children’s elevated heart rates and decreased FMD. Finally, all of the children in the study already maintained a healthy weight, so it is unclear how and if these results will extend to children who are already overweight.
Researchers have been fascinated by the potential benefits of exergaming for a while. In addition to the physical gains, other recent studies have suggested that exergaming can promote mental health as well. In a 2012 study, researchers used exergaming to establish that short sessions of physical activity can enhance children’s cognitive function, particularly the mental processes that underlie memory and impulse control.
In 2009, only 33 percent of students in the U.S. attended daily physical education classes, according to the CDC. If exergaming generates even some of the benefits that its promoters claim, it might be worth incorporating into physical education courses, especially since it seems to be a relatively painless way to get sedentary kids to exercise. Such an undertaking would be a significant investment, however — each console costs between $130–300. One school in California spent $150,000 on exergaming in 2008. Before we abandon such tried and true games like tag and jump rope, there need to be more randomized, controlled studies that examine the effects of exergaming over a wider sample and longer period of time.