Why Diet When There’s ‘Dance Dance Revolution’?

Video games aren’t so evil—and they may even help lower rates of childhood obesity.

A study finds some types of interactive video games promote physical activity in kids. (Photo: PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura/Getty Images)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

Video games aren’t all bad for kids, it turns out. In particular, when it comes to getting kids up and moving, a new study says that some highly interactive video games may, in fact, be a solution for kids who need more physical activity.

The hope is that these games can help counteract a bad combination: a lack of backyards, parks, gyms and other places where children and teens can play vigorously and safely, and kids’ love of sedentary video games. One-third of the nation’s kids are overweight or obese, say health experts, and a lack of enough exercise plays a clear role in this terrifying number. (Kids should get 60 minutes of some kind of physical activity on most days of the week.)

Interactive video games may be a solution for some kids who need more physical activity at home and at school, according to a new study. The research, out of George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, tested two types of e-games with kids in third through eighth grades at an inner-city school in Washington, D.C., including a new type of interactive game.

That game, called Winds of Orbis: An Active Adventure, is what’s called a “tailored” video game, which means the user tailors the game to his or her abilities, preferences, and goals while playing the role of a virtual superhero who climbs, jumps, and slides during the adventure. That’s different from most interactive fitness games, like Dance Dance Revolution, in which the activity is embedded in the game.

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The researchers compared Winds of Orbis, Dance Dance Revolution, and a typical school-based gym class to find out which one burned the most calories. Traditional PE class was best for energy (calorie) expenditure, but kids in third through fifth grades moved enough during the video games to meet the criteria for vigorous activity.

Older kids didn’t get as much out of the video games compared to younger kids, though, and teen girls failed to burn enough energy in any of the three activities. However, among girls, the energy expenditure from Orbis was about the same as PE but was greater than for Dance Dance Revolution. It’s possible that girls responded better to Orbis because it allowed them to play at a lower intensity and to engage their entire bodies.

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Video games are here to stay, so it makes sense to incorporate them into kids’ lives in a healthy way, said the study’s lead author, Todd Miller, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. “A lot of people say screen time is a big factor in the rising tide of childhood obesity,” Miller said. “But if a kid hates playing dodgeball but loves Dance Dance Revolution why not let him work up a sweat playing E-games?”

The study, published in the journal Games for Health, shows the potential for interactive video games to improve kids’ fitness levels, Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym (who was not involved in the study), told TakePart, “Video games aren’t going to replace gyms, but there is a place for them,” he says. “They’re a great adjunct.”

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But, Holland says, the study points to areas where the games could be improved to produce more vigorous activity. For example, he says, many studies show that people tend to exercise at a higher level if they’re working out with another person or are competing with others. The interactive video games in the study, he notes, were single-player vesions of the games. “There is something to that social element that I don’t think we want to lose,” he says. “I think you would probably find slightly higher energy expenditure if there was competition.”

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Holland said he saw video game manufacturers who were eager to meet the need for more interactive video games aimed at kids' fitness. But, he cautioned, game makers need to think less about high-tech gizmos and more about the goal of just getting kids moving. “Some of these games are way too sophisticated. You can't just put in the game and play,” he says. “You've got to make them fun and simple.”

To be sure, good old school gym class could probably use an overhaul too—particulary when it comes to girls. “We need to start thinking outside the box about what we do in gym—to make it fun and less regimented,” Holland says. “I think we have to reinvent ourselves.”

Is there a role for video games in decreasing childhood obesity? What innovative ideas have you seen for countering this epidemic?

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