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Hitting the Reset Button on Childhood Obesity

Exergames Offer Phys Ed Teachers a New Weapon Against Weight

Video games, with their hypnotic flashes of color and light; their promise of hours of distraction; their offer of competition without need for coordination, strength, or stamina, might seem to be the furthest thing from a pathway to peak fitness. The very thought of video games prompts visions of sedentary kids lounging on the couch, battling invading alien armies using little more than their thumbs. So it’s ironic that an activity commonly associated with lethargy might just become an integral part of the solution. But in the face of a national epidemic, where the obesity rate among adolescents has tripled since 1980, good ideas sometimes grow out of the most unlikely places.

A new study led by GW School of Public Health and Health Services’ Todd Miller, Ph.D., associate professor of Exercise Science, and Karen McDonnell, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Prevention and Community Health, and funded through a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program, is exploring the possibility that video games might be the tool that helps fix the nation’s obesity problem. The yearlong study — part of Health Games Research, a program aimed at improving health through digital games and game technologies, and part of the RWJF Pioneer Portfolio — is comparing traditional physical education programs with video-game play.

Miller and McDonnell are partnering with administrators at Francis Stevens Education Campus, an inner-city school in northwest Washington, D.C., to survey children in first through eighth grades. They are comparing two types of exergames — Dance, Dance Revolution (DDR) by Konami and the Winds of Orbis, an active adventure game originally developed by students at Carnegie Mellon University — with traditional physical education activities.

In recent years, DDR has become a popular addition to PE programs nationwide. The game pairs a popular song with a sequence of movements that players are asked to repeat on the dance mat by stepping on patterned spaces. Proponents argue that the game doesn’t rely on complex skills like catching and throwing found in team sports and that it appeals to a wider range of children. “If you play something like basketball and you aren’t very athletically inclined,” explains Miller, “you’re going to spend most of class on the sidelines. Exergames are more appealing because they’re not so dependent upon athletic ability.”

The study breaks the comparison down into two parts — exertion and enjoyment. The first step is examining a formalized PE setting. Roughly 200 students will wear Actical accelerometers, measuring in all planes of motion and recording caloric expenditure.

The essential element of the study, however, is the hypothesis that exertion for the sake of exertion is not very effective. The key, the researchers say, is that concepts such as motivation, enjoyment, and social reinforcement are crucial determinants of physical activity and, therefore, useful to develop effective programs to improve health. To that end, the second piece of the project will focus on aspects of social cognitive theory to determine how children feel about exergaming as compared to traditional PE.

“You can burn energy in any manner of ways, but the key is whether or not you enjoy it,” says McDonnell. “If kids aren’t enjoying themselves, they are going to see the exercise experience as a chore.” The goal, she says, is discovering what encourages and motivates kids to engage in physical activity.

Until this point, interactive video games have been very fixed: Players have an objective, and there is really only one way to complete it. That leads to a serious problem, according to Miller: boredom. “DDR, for example, is pretty strict in what it wants the player to do,” he says. “You pick a song, you go until the song is over, and you can either do the steps or you can’t. There is no real immersion in the game. It can get very mundane very quickly. ”

However, the Winds of Orbis is designed to be less restrictive, allowing players to decide the pace of the game. That, argues Miller, should make the game more fun and offer a greater sense of accomplishment. The ability to maintain player interest is a huge advantage over DDR and conventional PE activities. “If you’re in pretty good shape and you want to sprint through the game as fast as you can, great. But if you are a little out of shape, you can go as slow as you need to and you’re not penalized for that. You can decide what you want to accomplish within the game, making the game appealing to everyone, regardless of fitness level.”

Part of the problem facing today’s children, according to McDonnell, is how often they have PE classes. Many school districts have cut gym class back to one day a week. When studies show children already aren’t getting as much activity at home, the idea of cutting back at school doesn’t make much sense to McDonnell. “We know that activity enhances cognitive and social ability,” she says, “so why are we cutting back on physical activity at our schools rather than enhancing it?”

Turning to video games to encourage kids to exercise is an obvious solution to Miller. The draw is clear to just about any parent today: Kids want to play video games. “Channeling that motivation into activity through exergaming seems to make a lot of sense,” argues Miller.

One false step in the delicate balance between fun and fitness, according to Miller, is the growing supply
of virtual personal trainer games popping up on the market. It’s the video-game equivalent to chocolate-
covered broccoli, he says, and that is a step in the wrong direction. “We know that people generally don’t like being hounded by real personal trainers, so there’s no reason to believe they’d feel any differently about an electronic one.” Developers have taken something intrinsically fun, video games, and paired it with something that is by nature laborious, exercise. The problem is that they’ve stripped out the game and all that is left is a simulation of what most people don’t like to do.

“They should stick with what they’re good at, making games, and find creative ways to incorporate physical activity into the game,” says Miller.

It’s possible that by removing the work from the workout and replacing it with a little adventure, children and adults alike will be left with something that makes exercise an enjoyable experience they can stick with.

“We are hoping that we can show that games like this could be another avenue by which school administrators and parents turn to help kids get active and start addressing the serious problem of obesity in this country,” explains McDonnell, adding that it’s not about finding a substitute for sit-ups, jumping jacks, and the 40-yard dash. “We need to start somewhere, and we want to give people tools that they feel like they can use.”