I have written frequently about ideas to decrease the incidence of childhood obesity in the United States, including having kids play with their friends and getting kids outside. I have always viewed television and video games as opponents in the fight against inactivity, as I believe it is better to have kids engage in sports or other forms of physical activity. It never occurred to be that exergames have the potential to be used as a strategy to get kids more active, even though adults have used games such as Wii Fit to try to get in shape.

Are exergames a viable alternative to traditional physical activities for kids?
Are exergames a viable alternative to traditional physical activities for kids?

A new study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicineby Bruce W. Bailey, PhD and Kyle McInnis, ScD examines the energy expenditure of children playing exergames. Exergames is a new term to describe video games that involve virtual movements to replicate real-life activities. These exergames include Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution, among many others. The authors studied the energy expenditure of a variety of games and also looked at the enjoyment level that those games produced. They felt that enjoyment was important to assess, as they felt that kids would be more likely to continue to participate in virtual activities they enjoy.

Surprisingly the authors found that exergames actually did engage children in moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity. They noted that these games compare favorably to walking on a treadmill at 3 miles per hour and noted that 4 of the 6 actually resulted in a higher energy expenditure. They noted that among Wii Sports games, bowling showed an increase in energy expenditure above rest of 2.3 times, tennis had an increase of 2.5 times that at rest, and boxing had 3.0 to 4.2 times above rest. Likewise they pointed to research that showed that Dance Dance Revolution has an increase in energy expenditure that is 2.7 to 4.1 times above rest.

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In terms of enjoyment, they noted that boys typically enjoyed Wii Boxing more than girls and that girls enjoyed Dance Dance Revolution more than boys. Enjoyment of other games was similar between boys and girls. They did note that children with a higher BMI (equal to or greater than the 85th percentile) enjoyed exergames more than those with lower BMI’s.

“Although exergaming is most likely not the solution to the epidemic of reduced physical activity in children, it appears to be a potentially innovative strategy that can be used to reduce sedentary time, increase adherence to exercise programs, and promote enjoyment of physical activity. This may be especially important for at-risk populations, specifically children who carry excess body weight,” Bailey and McInnis conclude.

I think this study is encouraging, as it shows that there are at least some video games with the potential to get kids more active. I don’t think that it’s a substitution for physical activity such as sports and other cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening activity. Once or twice a week, though, exergaming can satisfy the recommendations for 60 minutes of the moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per week, as recommended in the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. These exergames could be especially useful on days where the weather or other factors keep kids indoors. So while I would not encourage parents to use this as a substitution for getting kids outside with their friends playing sports or other fun, athletic activities, I would keep it in mind as an option.