Technology & childhood obesity
Exergaming is a fitness craze, but does Wii really improve kids' health? Kids who exergame burn three times as many calories as those who watch TV.
At five years old, Tsubasa Miyahara is already a video game expert who’s capable of kicking adult butts at Wii games. He’s mastered boxing, golf, and tennis, and has the best electronic backhand on the block. Can playing these exergames be a healthy substitute for real activity?
Like many parents aware of the threat of childhood obesity, Tsubasa’s mother Rie worries that he spends too much time in front of the screen and not enough time in the fresh air.
Over the past 25 years, the prevalence of overweight and obese kids has doubled. Eighteen percent of two- to 17-year-old Canadian children are overweight and 8 percent are obese, according to the latest Canadian Community Health Survey. In 1978-79, the figures were only 12 and 3 percent respectively.
In addition to expanded body shapes, screen-based games on TV and the computer have also changed. Can new versions actually help kids get active?
Next Generation of Gaming
Exergaming is the latest craze among Japanese kindergartners–not to mention pretty much everyone who follows video game trends. It isn’t just fingers that get a workout with modern offerings such as Nintendo’s Wii and Wii Fit. These systems use devices such as hand-held control units that relay a player’s real movements or pressure-sensitive balance boards that a player must change position on to control his screen character. These simulation games are designed to get us standing, twisting, throwing, and punching.
Fitness snobs might scoff at the fact that exercise occurs while the TV or computer monitor stays on. But exercise is exercise, according to Dr. Ernie Medina Jr., who spoke at the Saskatchewan Interactive Media Association Summit last February.
“The heart doesn’t care if you’re running on that pad playing a video game or you’re outside running around the block,” the public health doctor from Redlands, California, told Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix. “All it knows is you’re doing something and it’s got to pump more blood and oxygen to those muscles.”
Exergames Burn Calories
A study in the journal Pediatrics in January 2007 was the first to scientifically measure energy spent while playing video games. Mayo Clinic researchers studied 25 children–15 of normal weight and 10 who were mildly obese (based on the International Obesity Task Force [IOTF] guidelines to measure overweight and obesity in children and adolescents).
Both groups of children were tested in a variety of states: sitting and watching TV, playing a traditional video game, playing two active exergames, and watching TV while walking on a treadmill. What researchers found was that although watching TV and playing traditional video games burned the same amount of energy, exergaming that involved ball catching burned three times as many calories in both groups.
Walking on the treadmill while watching TV also tripled caloric burning in the leaner children, but it increased five times in the mildly obese group. The heaviest energy burner for both groups was an exergame that involved dancing. The obese group burned over six times more energy dancing than sitting and watching TV.
Technology Versus Trees
Dr. Jean-Pierre Chanoine’s opinion is mixed when it comes to using modern technologies in the fight against obesity. Dr. Chanoine, clinical professor at BC Children’s Hospital and head of the hospital’s Endocrinology and Diabetes Unit in the Department of Pediatrics told alive, “Sure, it’s certainly one way of getting teens off the couch and having fun. In this regard, it’s a great idea–playing with technology to make it more health friendly.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “[exergaming] doesn’t beat a good walk in the park. I’m not sure that staying inside and running as part of a game instead of running outside is the best way to go.”
Thirty years ago, the doctor pointed out, society had different values, including interacting with nature, and general daily habits that were more active and healthier than they are today. “We are always looking for one culprit [for],” he said, “and there isn’t one. There are many.”
Dr. Chanoine cited less physical education at school and more junk food vending machines as two factors in the complex matrix of factors affecting overweight children, who are more likely to develop into overweight adults unless the pattern is broken.
The doctor explained that when it comes to treating obesity, it’s an individual process to identify a child’s particular lifestyle issues, whether it’s too much TV or too much soda pop.
Cheeks to Chair Syndrome
Sitting on our butts–a sedentary lifestyle–is another big factor contributing to childhood obesity. Television viewing alone accounts for over 14 hours a week in two- to 11-year-old Canadian children’s lives, and almost 13 hours a week in 12- to 17-year-olds, according to a 2006 Statistics Canada report using 2004 data.
The latest Canadian Community Health Survey (2004) reveals a strong correlation between a child’s “screen time” or time spent watching TV, playing video games, or sitting at a computer, and the likelihood of a child being overweight or obese.
It’s no wonder health and fitness experts have been encouraging us–begging us, actually–to get up and get active, starting at a young age so we can hopefully continue an active lifestyle into adulthood.
Health Canada recommends, and the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine has concurred, that children should work up to at least 90 minutes of moderate (brisk walking, skating, and bike riding) or vigorous (running and playing soccer) physical activity every day.
There’s some evidence that the message is sinking in. Fifty-two percent of Canadians aged 12 and older are moderately active compared to 43 percent in 1996, notes a March 2008 Statistics Canada report. Teens aged 12 to 17 are the most active, getting exercise equal to walking an hour a day or jogging 20 minutes a day. In older age groups, the levels of activity dropped.
No, Take Anything but My Wii!
To promote a more active lifestyle for children and youths, Health Canada recommends cutting back on daily total screen time by 90 minutes.
Technically, playing exergames counts toward screen time but, as mentioned, exergames burn more calories than the typical wiggle-your-thumbs video game.
In a second study in the British Medical Journal in 2007, six boys and five girls aged 13- to 15-years-old were monitored as they played new generation exergames. The results showed that they burned over 60 more calories an hour than when playing sedentary games. Over a 12-hour gaming week, that equals almost 720 extra calories burned.
Nevertheless, the authors of this study point out, “The energy used when playing active Wii sports games was not of high enough intensity to contribute toward the recommended daily amount of exercise in children.”
Although high-tech video games have their place in helping to fight obesity, they’re not a substitute for genuine physical exercise–especially exercise outdoors in a park, if Dr. Chanoine had his way.
There may be a place for exergaming in this formula, if only to remind us of our childhood competitiveness and as a warm-up for a real game of tennis.
Video Games for Good?
Sure, we’ve all heard about the link between violence and video games, and frankly, who isn’t a little tired of hearing the bad news by now?
But video games can actually lead to positive change, according to a project by Terry Lavender of Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology. The graduate student has been researching whether it’s possible to use games to develop socially beneficial attitudes.
Lavender created a video game about homelessness. The player has to survive on Vancouver streets for 24 hours. Participants were asked to fill out the same questionnaire before and after playing, and a control group was also set up.
“There were some definite improvements,” he says of the results. “After playing the game, people were more empathetic toward the homeless.”
Lavender points out that many people claim the evidence surrounding violence and video games is difficult to interpret, as many external factors often influence players as well, including peer pressure and TV.
“There is substantial research that video games at least temporarily increase violent feelings and aggressiveness. Whether [players] act on that hasn’t been proven,” he says.
Lavender would like to try to duplicate his results with other games that deal with different social issues. His game can be played online at homelessgame.net.