“Exergames” Health Claims Called into Question
Are you one of those parents who breathes a sigh of relief when your nonathletic child picks up the Wii controls for a rousing game of tennis or a session of fast dancing? You’re thinking it’s the perfect way to incorporate exercise into your child’s otherwise sedentary lifestyle.
You’re going to need to rethink that. The latest research shows that “exergames”—video games that require physical interactivity—do not provide the increase in activity many believed when they invested in the game systems.
How were you to know? After all, the companies marketing those video systems and games were claiming health benefits. And they weren’t entirely wrong. As explained in The New York Times Article, “Exergames” Don’t Cure Young Couch Potatoes, early studies found that “…adults and children who play active video games, when encouraged in an ideal laboratory setting, engage in moderate, even vigorous physical activity briefly.”
But real-life experience is apparently quite different. In a study undertaken by the Children’s Nutrition Research center at Baylor College of Medicine, researchers recruited children 9-12 years old with a body mass index above the median who did not have a video game console. The children were given a Wii; half were asked to choose physically demanding games while the other half were offered passive games.
After 13 weeks of game playing, there was “no evidence that children receiving the active video games were more active in general, or at any time, than children receiving the inactive video games.”
While those findings may seem counterintuitive, the results are in keeping with a well-known phenomenon in the field. “When you prescribe increased physical activity,” study author Anthony Barnett explained, “overall activity remains the same because the subjects compensate by reducing other physical activities during the day.”
Other real-life studies also suggest that “exergame” is a misnomer. In one study, Professor Scott G. Owens, associate professor of exercise science at the University of Mississippi and his colleagues gave Wii Fit games to eight families. Measurements were taken before the games arrived and then again six and 12 weeks after. As Owens told NYT writer Randall Stross:
A major finding was the dramatic drop in daily use after the first six weeks. The Wii Fit was used an average of 22 minutes a day by everyone in the household in the first six weeks, but only four minutes a day in the second six weeks. At the end, health-related fitness measures were essentially unchanged.
There’s No Substitute For the Real Thing
What’s the parent of a video-exergame-loving child to do? Find a way between Wii tennis and golf to put a real racket or club in his or her hands. “For physical activity that brings health benefits,” writes Stross, “kids need things like real balls, real rackets and real courts.”