BOSTON — Have you ever wondered just how much health benefit children get from so-called “exergames” such as Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution, which are often marketed as a good source of physical activity for kids?
Well, there’s finally an answer to that question. The University of Massachusetts Boston recently published a study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that measures the amount of energy expended when children play these types of physically interactive video games.
WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with study co-author Kyle McInnis, a professor of exercise and health sciences at UMass-Boston, about the findings.
SACHA PFEIFFER: First tell us which games you tested. There was Wii Fit and there was Dance Dance Revolution, but there were six games in total?
KYLE MCINNIS: Right. We tested a number of games. We wanted to get a good feel across the board, so there are things called Sportwall, where kids run up and hit a blinking light. There’s LightSpace — very similar but the lights are coming from the floor. (The researchers also studied the games Cybex Trazer Goalie Wars and Xavix J-Mat.)
And you did this study in Boston with Boston kids, comparing the calories burned while playing one of those games to the calories burned while walking on a treadmill?
That’s correct. In some cases, they were similar. In some cases, they exceeded the kids walking on the treadmill. And in all cases, the energy expenditure was greatly above what we would traditionally think of calories burned while just playing an inactive video game. So, in fact, we found about 400 to 800 percent higher compared to what we call their resting metabolic rate.
But wouldn’t we expect that? I mean, if you’re talking about an inactive video game, where all you’re doing is sitting on a couch with a joy stick, wouldn’t necessarily — if you’re doing something physical, standing up — you burn more calories that way?
You would think so, but I think kids have gotten pretty clever over time, so that some of these games they can figure out how to play with actually minimal movement. So we wanted to put them to the test. And, even at the very low levels of the interactive games, we do see increases in heart rate that are what we would expect when they’re out playing a game of kickball or soccer.
So how would, for example, playing Dance Dance Revolution compare to walking on a treadmill?
It really depended on what level the kids chose on their game, how hard they chose to push themselves, and how much they really got into it. But in some cases it could have been even double what it was on the treadmill.
This next question isn’t meant to be a free ad for any particular game, but of all the games you tested, which ones consistently gave the best workout to the kids who played it?
I can’t really say because it really depends on what level for which game. So I don’t think it was the game per se; I think it was how engaged was the child within the game.
You only studied how much energy kids burned playing these games. Would the same results apply to adults?
I think so. We know through some initial studies that, even in seniors who play virtual bowling games and some of the others that are available now, heart rates are increasing to a moderate level and other changes associated with good moderate-to-vigorous activity.
In your study, you basically conclude that these games are a good addition to an exercise regimen but they shouldn’t be a substitute for regular physical activity or for playing outside. So when it comes to working out do these exergames have limited usefulness?
I really haven’t heard anyone say that this should take the place of going out in a park, but in many cases we found that this can be a really strategic alternative. A lot of the work that I do focuses on kids in the inner cities — sometimes not in the safest places — and in many cases we’ve learned that kids are really being restricted because of their environment. So here’s an alternative when you’re restricted to indoors.
The context for all of this is that childhood obesity is becoming a huge problem. And video games get some of the blame for that, since some of the kids who do a lot of the gaming tend to be pretty sedentary. But you seem to be pointing out some of the positive aspects of video games, if it’s the right video game.
Kids are wired differently these days and they’re growing up on technology. I really think it’s, ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ It doesn’t mean this is the only exercise they’re going to do. But, hey, if they’re interested and enjoying it, it’s another opportunity to push the envelope on moving kids into an active state.