When the Nintendo Wii came out in 2006, it was hailed by parents and health-care workers alike. Finally, a gaming system that encouraged America's youth to get up from their potato sack-shaped indentations in the couch and break a sweat. Finally, an innovative way for a generation of baby boomers to stay active and motivated well into their golden years. What's not to like?
Turns out, video games may not be quite the exercise replacement that we were all hoping for. A new study comparing the physical activity levels of two groups of children—with one playing active video games while the other played sedentary ones—saw no difference in physical activity or weight loss after 13 weeks. Using a motion-measuring device called an accelerometer, researchers noted both groups received about 25-30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity each day regardless of what kind of games they played.
"We expected that playing the video games would in fact lead to a substantial increase in physical activity in the children," head researcher Tom Baranowski said to Reuters Health. "Frankly we were shocked by the complete lack of difference."
Still, the findings make some sense. Anyone who's played Wii Tennis knows that full-arm-swinging rookies develop into efficient wrist-flicking pros given enough experience. And they highlight a larger point: that no matter how active, no video game will ever be as physically demanding as actually playing a sport. Or, for that matter, going to a gym. As The New York Times pointed out in 2010, people burn twice as many calories per minute when they work out at the gym versus doing it virtually on the Wii.
But even if gaming systems like the Wii don't offer significant physical benefits for children, they're not entirely without merit. Senior citizens using the Wii Fit have been shown to make marked improvements in areas like balance. A recent study carried out at Southeastern Louisiana University showed that adult women playing the system's hula and step games were working out at a brisk walking pace of 3.5 miles per hour. Most importantly, when it comes to children, "active" games are far less likely to become addictive than role playing games, limiting their risk of becoming inexorably immersed in a fantasy world.
"It's the games with no end that are the worst," said Brian Dudley, director of the U.K's first video game addiction clinic, to The Guardian in 2009. "They can help people develop eating disorders, such as binge eating. We're also seeing cross-addiction, where gamblers start to also get addicted to gaming and alcohol. There are many triggers for addiction such as bullying and family problems."