UMass Boston Study Finds Active Video Games Can Help Kids Burn Calories

Crystal Bozek | March 18, 2011
Exercise and Health Sciences students interact with the children in the All Abilities Active program at the Oak Square YMCA.

Exercise and Health Sciences students interact with the children in the All Abilities Active program at the Oak Square YMCA.

Active video games like Dance Dance Revolution and Nintendo Wii Boxing can help children burn calories while having fun at the same time, a new University of Massachusetts Boston study shows.

And in some cases, the games may offer a better workout than walking on a treadmill at 3 miles per hour.

Professor of Exercise and Health Sciences Kyle McInnis and Bruce Bailey, a former UMass Boston professor who now works at Brigham Young University, coauthored the study, which had 39 middle school-aged children from UMass Boston's Go Kids Boston program play six types of interactive video games, or "exergames," to measure how much energy they expend and how they react.

McInnis said this was one of the first studies he undertook at Go Kids Boston, a youth fitness laboratory and training center on campus. The study was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine and was picked up by dozens of media outlets across the country like TIME Magazine and WBUR.

The children completed tasks like chasing lights on a mat, dancing, and boxing a virtual opponent while using Dance Dance Revolution, LightSpace, Nintendo Wii (Boxing), Cybex Trazer (Goalie Wars), Sportwall, and Xavix (J-Mat).

McInnis and Bailey compared the energy required to play those games or walking on a treadmill at 3 miles per hour to the energy expended while at rest. They found that exergames increased the amount of calories each child burned 400 to 800 percent over their resting metabolic rate, an amount that was at least as good as treadmill walking-- and sometimes better.

The video games "compared favorably with walking on a treadmill at three miles per hour, with four out of the six activities resulting in higher energy expenditure," they wrote.

Listen to a WBUR interview with Kyle McInnis

While there have been studies linking "exergames" to fitness, McInnis said this is one of the first studies to measure the enjoyment of exergaming and look at how hard children of all different body sizes are working when they play. The professors compared children of normal weight to children with high body mass indexes (BMIs). While all the children said they had fun, the kids with the highest BMIs were the ones who repeatedly reported enjoying the exergames the most.

"I think this is an important point," McInnis said. "Typically, these kids with higher BMIs might be less exposed to sports or have a history of being less successful in aerobic activity-based games just because it’s more difficult to move around."

“These games capitalized on their ability to be successful. In other words, it was kind of built-in positive reinforcement," he said.

Read the entire study at the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine

McInnis cautioned that his study is not promoting exergames as the main way -- or best way -- to achieve fitness, but as just one of many ways to help keep kids active.

"It's another item on a menu of options," he said. "This is not going to solve youth obesity. But it is encouraging that kids enjoy the interactive experience. If they can burn calories while playing video games, that's very positive. It's another choice."

McInnis, in an extension of his research, is now bringing the same technology he used at Go Kids Boston out to schools, working with children in the classroom. Using digital pedometers, accelerometers, heart rate meters, and other equipment, McInnis is looking at how children react to different activities.

"The kids are playing games, dancing, and hiking, and the teachers are using the data from those activities in their science and math lessons," he said. "It's all very innovative. They walk around the park, and all the data goes to a wrist watch and can be put on a computer."

Read more coverage of this UMass Boston study:

Medpage Today   Los Angeles Times

WebMD    TIME Magazine

Tags: college of nursing and health sciences , exercise , go kids , kyle mcinnis , the point

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