It’s Fun, But Is It Exercise?

Parents have been exercising their right to ask me if “exergames” - the games children move to while watching a video or computer screen - are beneficial in keeping kids fit and helping them lose weight.  Well, let me see if I can provide a wee bit of information (pun intended) on this particular topic. 

Exergame systems allow players to participate in exercise or sports activities by using hand controllers, pedals, balance boards and other wireless devices that transfer body movements onto the screen. Studies have shown that children are six times more likely to exercise if it involves a video game. But just how much exercise is it and can it result in weight loss?

Thus far there have been only a handful of studies that have looked at this issue, all involving children from age 6-17 years.  What do they show?

There are also downsides to exergaming.  Playing these games can encourage consumption of unhealthy snack foods similar to what happens when we watch television and sit sedately while we snack.  Second, exergaming can cause injuries to bones and joints just as in a sport if directions are not followed or they are overused. Third, they may encourage social isolation rather than the healthy social interactions that come from playing these games with other peers on a team or in a gym setting.

But, if the choice is between moving and not moving, studies suggest that we suggest they move since there is some evidence that practicing our movement skills improves our balance, agility and reaction time.  It may also help those who are overweight get used to practicing a sport or exercise without peers there to criticize their technique.  It may even introduce children to sports they never before considered trying. But whether this improves their overall physical health is questionable.

So what do I suggest? If your child wants to exercise or play a game requiring movement, have them go outside and play first.  If the weather is bad and they cannot go outside, then exergaming is an alternative to consider to sedentary videogames as long as it is done in moderation, which according to the American Academy of Pediatrics should be no more than 2 hours a day. 

Hopefully, tips like this will stretch your knowledge base and perhaps your muscles and joints when it comes to recognizing the possible benefits and risks of exergaming. 

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids