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Active Video Games Help Kids Burn Calories

Video games that mix entertainment with exercise can help kids burn calories and have fun at the same time, a new study shows.

March 7, 2011 -- Video games that mix entertainment with exercise can help kids burn calories and have fun at the same time, a new study shows.

The study had 39 middle-school aged kids play six different kinds of “exergames” -- video games that require a player to move around.  

The games included games such as trying to keep up with a cartoon Jackie Chan as he hurdled down the streets of Hong Kong, boxing a virtual opponent, and chasing colored lights on a mat, either to follow dance moves or stomp on bugs.

Researchers compared the energy required to play those games or walk on a treadmill at a speed of 3 miles per hour to energy expended at rest.

Researchers found that exergames increased the amount of calories each child burned 400% to 800% over their resting metabolic rate, an amount that was at least as good as treadmill walking.

Exergames and Kids With High BMIs

Although all the kids said they had fun, the kids with the highest BMIs were the ones who reported liking exergames the most.

“I think that’s important,” says study researcher Kyle McInnis, ScD, a professor in the department of exercise and sports sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

“Typically, these kids with higher BMIs might be less exposed to sports or have a history of being less successful in activity-based games just because it’s more difficult to move around,” McInnis tells WebMD.

“It was capitalizing on their ability to be successful. In other words, it was kind of built-in positive reinforcement.”

Other experts say they have noticed the same phenomenon.

“If you’re in grade three or four and you’re the last one picked for the team, that doesn’t do a lot for your self-confidence,” says Larry Katz, PhD, professor of kinesiology and director of the Sport Technology Research Laboratory at the University of Calgary in Canada.

“The nice thing about the exergames is that because it’s individualized, you can improve relative to yourself,” says Katz.

The study is published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.

Previous studies have shown that active video games can help kids increase their physical activity, but experts who reviewed the study for WebMD noted that this one was one of the first to look at how hard kids are working when they play.

“One thing that was unique about their study that I haven’t seen in other studies was metabolic measurement,” Katz says, "because you’re actually measuring intensity, which is nice because people talk about it, but now you can actually measure whether it’s moderate to extensive." Katz has studied the effect of exergames on kids, but was not involved in the current study.

The study was also one of the first to measure enjoyment of exergaming, experts say.

“People, in general, tend to participate in activities they enjoy. That’s true of adults, but it’s probably more true of children,” says study researcher Bruce W. Bailey, PhD, assistant professor of exercise and sports science at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Play

Though exergames have the potential to get kids up and moving, they can pose a quandary for parents.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting the amount of time kids spend in front of a TV or computer screen to two hours daily.

But if kids are up and moving while they’re watching, does that count? And is it OK to let kids spend a nice day indoors as long as they’re playing Dance Dance Revolution?

“These are not a substitute for being outside, riding a bike, being on the soccer field,” says Kevin R. Short, PhD, assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

“If you’re going to let your kids watch TV or be on the computer for two hours, substituting at least a half hour or one hour of this time of active gaming would be a successful way to reduce the amount of sedentary time that they have,” says Short, who published a study on exergaming in Pediatrics in 2009.

Other experts agree.

“Spending time outdoors is the strongest correlate of physical activity among pre-school aged children, although this topic has not been well-studied with adolescents,” writes James F. Sallis, PhD, a psychologist at San Diego State University, in an editorial on the study.

And experts note that kids can be fickle and that their interest in exergames may wane over time, another reason why it’s probably not a good idea to substitute Wii soccer for the real thing.

“Active video games that require player movement should be thought of as a way to complement a whole menu of choices to get kids active,” says McInnis.

“The key is to help parents think of exergames as an alternative that offers variety rather than being a replacement for other forms of physical activity.”

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