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How video games may be able to reduce childhood obesity

Allen County (IN) Public Library

Although playing video games may seem like a big reason some children live a sedentary lifestyle, they may also be one key to reducing obesity.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Amanda Staiano tells us about her research on how being active indoors through use of video games could reduce childhood obesity. Staiano is an assistant professor at the Pediatric Obesity and Health Behavior Lab at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. She also co-authored the study, "Exergames for Physical Education Courses: Physical, Social, and Cognitive Benefits," and gave a TED talk on the topic at LSU this year.

There can be a number of reasons a child doesn’t go outside, such as bad weather, residing in a crime-ridden neighborhood, or simply just not wanting to, says Staiano.

“What I’m trying to do with my research is see—can we get kids to play more indoors when it’s needed, and can these video games be a tool to do that?” Staiano said.

Staiano studies exergames for this, which means an activity-promoting video game, such as Dance Dance Revolution or Wii Fit.

“We see kids playing these exergames and they work up a sweat, their heart starts beating faster, and so it can actually qualify as moderate-intensity physical activity,” Staiano said. 

However, Staiano says for a child to get the full benefits of being physically active that would contribute to weight loss, these exergames would have to be continuously played.

“We want every child to get at least one hour of physical activity every day,” Staiano said.

She suggests that children could either play exergames for the full hour, or for 20-30 minutes in addition to another activity.

But just like any type of video game, kids can also get bored of exergames and lose motivation to play them.

“So when we enroll children in say a six-month program, we’ll do things like introduce new games halfway through the intervention. We’ll have different challenges that they play to try and keep it really exciting and keep them engaged,” Staiano said.

Aside from interventions Staiano holds in labs or at schools, she also started a new study called Game Squad, which allows kids to play exergames at home for the study, rather than in a controlled setting. To keep motivation this way, kids are given a fitness coach to video chat with once a week, and also a Fitbit to track their progress.

Through her research, Staiano hopes to make the results of her studies available to parents and schools to help guide them in keeping children healthy.

“Especially, for those kids that may not try out for the sports team or may not see themselves as athletic or doing traditional sports. You know, how can we use technology to provide that physical activity?” Staiano said.