Exergaming and Physical Activity

Senior couple holding gaming controllers and having fun.

Video games, along with television and computers, are often maligned  as a major culprit in the obesity epidemic in America. Given the coincidence between the obesity epidemic and the onslaught of media (a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five 8 to 18 year olds are exposed to at least 16 hours of media a day!), it’s really not a stretch to see that this is the case.

 However, recently, home gaming platforms, particularly Nintendo’s Wii, have received considerable attention and research funding to explore their potential in increasing physical activity. For example, some schools in New York City have developed pilot programs to have kids satisfy their gym requirement by playing Wii Fit 4 hours per week. The new term to describe this practice is “exergaming.”

One of the benefits of exergaming is its inherent entertainment factor. Kids (and adults) love games because they’re fun, social, and captivating. While exercising with the general goal of long-term health in mind is noble, it is difficult to remain motivated when there are more immediate needs to attend to, and you can always put your exercise off “until tomorrow”. Video games provide an engaging, immediate goal to attain, which coupled with a required physical activity can be a far less painful way to burn calories than logging endless hours on a treadmill. Video games have actually been shown to distract from physically painful stimuli, allowing people to tolerate pain longer. As with any other exercise regimen, exergaming is only useful if people stick to it and really exert themselves. Once the initial novelty wears off, these games can be just as tedious as trudging to the gym.

Is exergaming a sufficient way to get the recommended physical activity into our busy schedules? Compared to sedentary video games, active games are beyond a doubt a better choice.  On average, kids expend only about 107 calories per hour playing sedentary games, which have also been shown to increase snacking behavior while playing: a double whammy for developing an obesogenic culture. In comparison, an hour of Wii boxing burns an average of  about 174 calories. This is a definite improvement on sedentary gaming, however, keep in mind that one study showed that in doing an hour of real boxing, a kid expends 382 calories.

 Does the hour of Wii boxing constitute the hour of physical activity suggested by the guidelines for children and adults?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine the answer is yes- so long as the activity gets the heart rate up sufficiently. This level of exertion varies with age and physical fitness level. For the physically fit gamer, home gaming systems don’t provide enough intensity for the games to be counted towards the daily physical activity recommendations, though games are certainly a good way to get together with friends and family or relax after a long day.

But for older adults who need get back into exercise, people who are undergoing rehab, or those who have limited mobility in general, exergaming is an engaging and comfortable way of getting exercise, which can very well serve as your physical activity for the day. You might be surprised to think of introducing older generations to video games, but according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, over half of adults regularly play video games already, making exergaming an obvious option for people who are already familiar with the systems.

How do you think exergaming can be incorporated into the physical activity recommendations?

Sanna Ronkainen  B.A.
Guest blogger