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Preventing Obesity One Exergame at a Time


Video games are not normally a form of entertainment that most would associate with getting kids up and moving, but a growing segment of the gaming industry does just that. These games are called “exergames,” and include games games like Wii Fit and Just Dance that involve physical activity as opposed to pushing buttons on a controller. Leader Dr. Amanda Staiano is a researcher with Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who has been doing extensive research into the health and wellness benefits of exergaming for the past several years.

“Exergames shot up to the top of the list of most popular video games, and we see that kids who don’t normally identify themselves as ‘gamers’ are gravitating toward these exergames,” Dr. Staiano said. “Teen girls on average play video games for six hours a week. If those hours were spent being physically active, then these girls would have no trouble meeting the physical activity recommendation of one hour each day.”

Additionally, exergames may be a good alternative for kids who live in areas that can be unsafe for outside physical activity, or during times of inclement weather.  One of Dr. Staiano’s studies was performed in a part of Washington, D.C. where parents didn’t feel safe allowing their children to play outside, partly due to the lack of parks and outdoor play areas. And, the study was performed during a winter when the area saw more than 20 inches of snow.

“Having exergames in the home can help kids overcome many of the barriers to being physically active,” she notes.

Past research from Dr. Staiano and colleagues has focused on other benefits of exergaming as well. For example, one review of 64 studies found that active video games may be helpful in rehabilitation. Other previous research from Dr. Staiano has found that exergames can promote social interaction, self-confidence, cognitive skills and motivation to exercise. And, exergames are proving to be helpful in weight loss, especially when games involve peer cooperation.

Dr. Staiano and colleagues have just concluded a study called Klub Kinect, in which overweight and obese adolescent girls played exergames three times a week for 12 weeks. “I was surprised at how much adolescents enjoy playing these games and continue to play for several weeks,” Dr. Staiano said. Those who dropped out of participation only did so due to transportation issues or family holidays, not lack of interest. She noted that the participation and attendance levels for this program were excellent, especially for a 12-week physical activity program for those who weren’t used to being regularly physically active.

The results of this study show that participants increased the amount of reported physical activity, and reported higher self-rated health and higher confidence in their ability to exercise.

“Another interesting finding is that the girls reported that exergaming helped them make more friends,” Dr. Staiano explained. “Peer influence is so important during adolescence, and teens with obesity often face social struggles from teasing and bullying about their weight.” She says that finding an activity that is both healthy and also builds self-confidence and new friendships is priceless.

 “Next up, I’m interested in taking the gaming to the children’s homes, since this is where you see most gaming occur,” she said. Since many games have a video chat feature, Dr. Staiano is interested in exploring the possibility of virtual support with peers or a fitness trainer communicating over online chat.

Exergames are an ever-growing segment of the larger video game market.  A 2008 report from Physic Ventures found that exergames make up the majority (about $6.4 billion) of the health e-games portion of the video game market. And as those numbers are only predicted to grow in the coming years, it’s clear they aren’t going away anytime soon.

“Rather than fight against screens and video games, we can enlist their help to promote healthy behaviors,” Dr. Staiano said.

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