The 3 Week Diet

Active Video Games Don't Make Kids More Active

Kids love playing video games. Heck, even adults who grew up playing video games still love to play. While the perception of video games as being a mind rotting waste of time has begun to slowly change as more research touting the mental benefits of gaming get released, the concern over kids forgoing exercise in order to worship at the alter of Mario remains very much alive.


The concept of a physically active interface for gaming first hit the stores in 1988 when Nintendo released the Power Pad, a floor mat players would run, jump, and jog on to move the character on screen. In recent years, developers have revisited the concept of active gaming with systems such as Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect and Nintendo’s Wii Fit. But do video games that require players to move physically really make kids more active? No, says a study set for release in the March issue of Pediatrics.


Researchers in Houston took 78 healthy children between the ages of 9 to 12-years old and gave half of them games played with a controller such as Madden NFL 11 and Mario Kart, while the other half received active games such as Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Sports, and EA Sports Active. Researchers, who expected to see a dramatic difference in the amount of exercise exhibited by the kids with active games, were shocked when the data reported no increase in running, jumping, or jogging throughout the 12-week experiment, compared to the kids who received traditional controller played games.


The results of this study differed dramatically from earlier studies that showed active games increased the amount of exercise kids received, but each of those studies had elements not found in a real life scenario. Early studies that indicated an increase in activity were either based in a laboratory setting or gave explicit instructions to kids that required them to play the active games. Researchers in the Houston study, who wanted to create a real life scenario, gave the children the games with no instructions on when or how to use them.


Researchers were at a loss to explain why the active games didn’t get the children in the study to become more active, but have a couple of theories. One was that playing the games simply caused the kids to become tired, and therefore decreased the amount of physical activity they engaged in later in the day. The other was that kids played the games using only a minimal amount of effort. The amount of effort each child expended daily was tracked using a accelerometer, a device that measures acceleration and exertion, so researchers could only determine the amount of daily movement and not how the kids actually exercised.


The results of the study have frustrated the researchers because of the team’s previous success getting children to eat more fruits and vegetables through the use of specially designed video games that tout the benefits of healthy eating. Researchers suspect those games had more of an impact because of their strong story lines and well-developed characters, while active games possess very little of both.


Perhaps considering the amount of money most video game companies have invested in active games, kids will soon find themselves running, jumping, and jogging in place because the fate of the world hangs in the balance and not simply because it’s good for them.


Timothy Lemke is a freelance writer living in Portland  who regularly contributes to the  blog of Dr. Andrew Thompson, a dentist in Hillsboro, Oregon.

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