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A big kid did it and faded away: videogames vs childhood obesity

Here’s an idea for improving the health of our children: let them play more videogames. Obesity has numerous health risks and it is most frightening in children as early learned behaviours will last throughout…

Could the answer to obesity be sitting right in front of us? pizzasso

Here’s an idea for improving the health of our children: let them play more videogames.

Obesity has numerous health risks and it is most frightening in children as early learned behaviours will last throughout their life. The regulatory, infrastructure and educational changes suggested in The Conversation’s recent Obese Nation series will help in the fight against obesity.

But these ideas take time to implement and the problem is rapidly increasing.

We need solutions now if we are to help the youngest generation—the ones most at risk. But it is essential that any solution uses already ingrained activities, and most importantly, that it reinforces positive behaviours while being simple and enjoyable. Hence the idea we should let kids play more videogames.

The future of gaming

Before you all pick up your pitch forks and torches, hear me out. Too much time playing videogames is seen as a problem as it leads to a sedentary lifestyle that sacrifices health. That’s why limiting screen time is often suggested as a solution.

But once again, we look for the simple solution and blame videogames rather than trying to understand the more complex social and economical underpinnings of the problem. But setting aside these issues for a moment, I’d like discuss how videogames can actually help those with an already sedentary lifestyle.

Since the inception of videogame systems and their introduction into homes in the early 80s, the way individuals play videogames has changed dramatically. Now arm and body movements can be substituted for button presses on a controller.

Nice moves, buddy.

Nintendo laid the foundation with Wii and Sony followed suit with Move for Playstation 3, but these systems require you to wave a controller in the air. As a result, these ideas were more of a gimmick than a revolution. Microsoft took the next step and transformed this idea with Kinect.

For those of you unfamiliar with Kinect for the Xbox 360, it’s a motion capture camera that allows real-time tracking of head, body and limbs for use to control on-screen movements.

For example, in the game The Gunstringer, the movement of the character in third-person is controlled with one hand while aiming and firing a gun is controlled by the other.

Although many games require simple movements, some of the most fun games require rapid, accurate whole-body movements that (wait for it) mimic exercise. If you haven’t played these games, try them. By the end of a couple of rounds, you are breathing heavily, and are hot and red-faced. Kinect might be exactly what families need to help children fight back against obesity.

I wouldn’t have believed this before seeing my four-and-a-half-year-old son play Kinect Fruit Ninja. He and his uncle had just arrived back from a three-hour hike (albeit an hour was spent skipping rocks at a stream) after which my son wanted to play some videogames.

We set up Fruit Ninja and thought he’d have some fun. He absolutely loved it. Not only that – after about 20 minutes of him trying to beat his own score, it looked as if he had run back from his hiking trip!

Now imagine your kids substituting 20-30 minutes of stationary video gaming with exercise type games. Think it will make a difference? I do, and there is evidence to back me up.

Just be mindful of the little ones.

Exergaming

There’s not much of an argument by experts that exercise gaming (or exergaming) results in greater energy expenditure than more sedentary forms of gaming.

But research suggests that the type of game played affects heart rates and energy expenditure differently, just as with different types of exercise.

Heart rates while playing games such as Dance Dance Revolution can reach up to 64% of maximum heart rate in the Wii and Xbox 360.

Sean Dreilinger

This is well within the range suggested by the American College of Sports Medicine for adults. But a rate of up to 80% may be necessary for younger children.

Other games, such as Kinect Sports Boxing, provide energy expenditure that’s equivalent to playing a game of volleyball or walking at 7km/h.

The interesting aspect is that some early results suggest Kinect games provide a greater energetic expenditure than equivalent Wii games, suggesting that whole body movements required by Kinect may result in greater overall activity.

Now imagine if kids substitute half their weekly game-playing time (about eight hours for girls and 14 hours for boys) with exergames. That would lead to approximately the daily recommended 60 minutes of activity. Then, by having different games that target specific types of exercise, it would provide a “routine” of sorts.

Play more games!

Exergaming, of course, will never substitute for real physical activity, but often the individuals that need to exercise most either dislike physical activity or don’t have the self-confidence to exercise. They may prefer to play videogames.

The best part of using exergames to curb obesity is that it requires no changes in regulations or new technology. It uses a system already in place and takes advantage of a behaviour that children already love and can do in the privacy of their own home.

Jenny and Tony Bot

Now imagine we encourage this positive behaviour further. Schools could offer local leaderboards and competitions. Not only will this improve pupil’s health – it may lead to greater interest in physical exercise as a whole!

As parents, we need to email developers and tell them we feel this type of promotion can change the obesity crisis and help society. Write petitions and contact organisations that deal with childhood obesity and suggest that they embrace technology the way children already have.

Those of you that have children know winning a battle often requires reinforcing positive behaviours, not trying to force kids to do things they hate (such as exercise).

Combating obesity and the problems associated with it starts at home. And one way you start fighting back is by letting your kids do something they already love – gaming.