Diabetes Forecast

Can Video Games Improve Fitness?

By Erika Gebel, PhD , ,

In the battle for health, video games have often been on the side of the enemy. But a brood of these electronic diversions dubbed "exergames" may actually help people, young and old, improve their health. As the obesity epidemic grows and Americans struggle to get active, video games that make players move may be just what the doctor ordered.

An Exer-What?
An exergame requires the player to do more than just push a button. Instead, exergamers interact with a device that can detect motion or pressure, tracking players' moves. Scores are based on how closely a player's movement—whether it's a putting stroke or a right hook to the virtual jaw—matches the game's ideal.

One of the older and more popular games is Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). Players dance to popular songs on a floor mat with pressure sensors. A newer crop of exergaming systems includes Nintendo's Wii, which senses movement using a handheld device, and the Kinect, which uses a sophisticated motion detector. These systems have increased exergames' popularity, and now scientists are testing whether the games can improve public health.

Game Theory
Fun counts as physical activity when you increase your heart rate for a length of time—you don't necessarily need to sweat. Here are three ways to get the most out of exergames.
1. Use your whole body Do more than wiggle your arm or shake your tush. Use full body movements to work your muscles and heart. You may not win more points, but you'll burn more calories and get a better workout.
2. Spend some time Play for at least 30 minutes a session to get a recommended daily dose of exercise. Set aside five play dates a week to reach the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity.
3. Keep it fresh Exergames can make workouts fun, so make sure you're playing games that pique your interest. Boxing's not your thing? Try dancing.

Game of Science
Exergames certainly cause players to burn more calories than regular sit-on-the-couch video games, studies show. But it's less clear whether exergames can get the heart rate up enough to meet recommended levels of physical activity.

Bruce Bailey, PhD, an associate professor of exercise sciences at Brigham Young University, is tackling the question of whether exergames can really improve players' fitness. In a study in the March 2011 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, Bailey compared how much energy adolescents expended playing popular exergames versus walking on a treadmill at 4 miles per hour, a moderate-intensity rate. DDR burned slightly more energy than treadmill walking, and Wii boxing slightly less.

"The thing about DDR, you have different songs with different beats," says Bailey. "If you get good enough, you can be very vigorous." The poorer results with Wii weren't surprising, he adds. Wii is easily tricked. "Children learn to flick their wrist" to play instead of moving their whole bodies, Bailey says. "They're just playing a game so they learn to do it with less energy expenditure over time."

Enjoyment of these games is also a factor, because their main advantage over traditional workouts is that kids are likely to want to play video games. "Playing exergames is more intriguing than hanging out on a treadmill for a while," Bailey says. "I think DDR is always very fun. Girls really like it and boys like it, too." But it's still unclear whether exergames will consistently keep people playing, and moving, for the recommended 30 minutes per session.

Fun for Everyone
While much of the research has focused on kids because they are more likely to be avid gamers, exergames may benefit grown-ups, too—especially if the adults are consciously using the games for fitness. "They're less likely to take short cuts," Bailey says, to make the game a lighter workout.

"The really promising part of using video games is that they are becoming so common and accessible," says Belinda Lange, PhD, senior research associate at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. "They are of interest not only to the young folks but to the old folks, too."

Can exergames help overweight players shed pounds? Lange says "there's potential. There are lots of promising applications coming out with the Kinect," such as virtual personal trainers. There may be benefits for people with diabetes, too. A study is now testing whether DDR can lower average blood glucose in people with type 2 diabetes more than treadmill walking.

Exergaming shouldn't be a substitute for other forms of exercise, experts say. And more research—and maybe new games—will be needed before conclusions can be drawn on the merits of exergames. For now, the games can be a welcome addition to an active lifestyle. "Some of the video games are fun to play with other people," says Lange. "That's really fun for a winter day, to get up and moving and playing together."



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