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Active Video Games Are Like Exercise Machines

Exercise machine

If you think giving your children a Wii or other active video games will make them exercise more, think again. Active video games are like exercise machines—they only help if you use them. Children who were given active video games were no more physically active than those given sedentary video games, according to a study in Pediatrics.

How healthy are active video games?

If you are a parent with children who play active video games, you may be familiar with the conflicting claims concerning the health benefits of such activities for kids. Let’s begin with the current study.

Researchers enrolled 78 children aged 9 to 12 years whose body mass index placed them at risk for adult obesity. All the participants were given a Wii game console and peripherals and either two video games that required them to move their bodies to simulate dancing or a sports activity, or two inactive video games.

To keep the study environment as natural as possible, the children were not given any instructions about which games to play or how to play them, and they were allowed to purchase other games if they desired.

During the 12-week study, the children’s physical activity levels were monitored using both self-report logs kept by the children and an accelerometer worn by all the participants. Accelerometer measures, log notes, height, and weight were followed at baseline and regularly throughout the study. The game consoles automatically stored the name and duration of the games played.

Overall, the physical activity levels of the children who had active video games were the same as those who had inactive video games. Among the findings were the following:

  • The children’s logs and the console records noted the kids played the games about 30 minutes per day during the first week of the study, then declined to only about 8 minutes daily by week 12
  • Physical activity as monitored by the accelerometers at weeks 1, between 6 and 7, and again at 12 showed no difference between the active video and inactive video game groups overall or at any point
  • The researchers saw no greater impact of having active video games among children not allowed to play outside because they lived in neighborhoods deemed unsafe by their parents
  • Heavier children with active video games were no more or less likely than others to engage in more physical activity

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The authors concluded that their findings “suggest that simply acquiring a new active video game does not automatically led to increased PA [physical activity].” They also noted that “providing explicit instructions to use the active video games appears to lead to increased activity,” as seen in previous studies.

Previous studies of active video games
In a University of Mississippi study, Scott Owens, an associate professor of health and exercise science, conducted a study to determine if giving families a Nintendo Wii Fit video game to use for six months would increase their level of physical activity.
Owens made the following observations:

  • Children showed significant increases in aerobic fitness after using the video games for three months, although the families as a whole did not demonstrate any significant changes in daily physical activity, balance, muscular fitness, body composition, or flexibility
  • Interest in the active video games declined rapidly, from 22 minutes per day during the first six weeks to four minutes daily during the second six weeks
  • Owens concluded use of the active video games had little impact on fitness.

In another study, research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2009 noted that playing active video games was equal to moderately intense exercise. The study included active Wii sports™ video games and some Wii fit™ games. To enjoy these benefits, however, people must play the games, not just buy them and put the box on the shelf.

On a cautionary note, several reports have been made of injuries associated with use of active video games. Parents should note that children may experience injuries if they are not careful, such as muscle strains, rotator cuff shoulder damage, and other upper body conditions.

The bottom line regarding active video games is that they are like exercise machines, perhaps like the treadmill or step climber under the laundry in your bedroom. Active video games may have the potential to increase physical activity among children, but only if they play them and do so regularly and not lose interest after a few weeks.

Baranowski T et al. Impact of an active video game on healthy children’s physical activity. Pediatrics 2012; 129:e636-e642

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons