Active video games lead to healthy habits, study finds

By Richard Danielson

St. Petersburg Times

Published: Saturday, Dec. 4 2010 9:06 p.m. MST

If your child's holiday wish list includes a video game, Lisa Hansen has advice as you head for the store.

An assistant professor at the University of South Florida's School of Physical Education and Exercise Science, she recommends buying active video games. Such games, from "Dance Dance Revolution" to EA Sports' fitness and training regimens, emphasize getting off the couch to play.

Hansen, co-director of USF's active gaming research labs, has seen how active games can help kids move toward healthier habits. Part of that evidence comes from research conducting at Belle Witter Elementary School, which is just southwest of the university.

There, one room has been converted to the "game room," thanks partly to funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has nine stations where kids can play exercise-oriented video games.

"The children are sweating; their heart rate is up," Witter Elementary physical education teacher Lynda Correia said. "They are really getting a workout. It's not a walk in the park."

That's good. Experts recommend that children get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day.

Recently, USF's research at Witter attracted a visit from the nation's top physical fitness director, Shellie Pfohl. As director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, Pfohl leads efforts stemming from first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign to reduce childhood obesity.

"This is physical education now and in the future," Pfohl said. "We've got to speak the kids' language, and this type of active gaming does just that."

One gaming approach Hansen finds promising is Gamercize, which includes a stepper or cycle that's connected to the game console controller for a variety of systems, including Xbox, PlayStation 3 and GameCube.

With Gamercize, players are constantly stepping or pedaling. If they stop, the game pauses. If they keep stepping, they can stay physically active while still losing themselves in the game.

There's a video game — and active game — for everyone, Hansen said. Games such as Wii Fit, and systems with lots of games tailored to individuals, allow players to track their progress and set their own goals.

The school, which has about 500 students, continues to run a traditional physical education program, but Correia said children "are absolutely excited about going to the game room. It is highly, highly motivational."

The active video games sometimes engage students who otherwise would hang back if their classmates were playing an outdoor team game.

Because the game lets them play by themselves or with another child, some children can relax and feel less self-conscious, Correia said.

"You see the sweat glistening," she said. That's when Correia moves in to ask, "Don't you feel good?" She wants kids to associate exercise with being energized.

"That might be enough to really get them started and get them into a routine," she said.

One more thing, researchers say. Once you buy that active game, get in there and play it yourself once in a while.

At Witter Elementary, researchers have seen some overweight parents resist at first, then join their kids and play a little.

"If families can have one night a week that's Wii night or active gaming night, that's such a healthy behavior," Hansen said.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service

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