Many parents hold out hope that active video games, or "exergames," will increase their children's activity levels—that, in a sense, these forms of entertainment will sneak exercise into their children's lives by masquerading as video games.
Here, in my country of Canada, a charitable and scientifically-led organization called Active Healthy Kids recently conducted research on active video games and children. The following were among the group's conclusions:
• Playing active video games does not lead children to increase their overall levels of daily activity.
• Heart-rate rises associated with active gaming do not approach the realm reached by moderate to vigorous physical activity.
• Active gaming, while initially appealing to children, rapidly loses its luster over even just a few months.
• Active gaming doesn't offer the fresh air, sunshine, connection with nature, and social interactions that come with outdoor play.
Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that playing video games increases appetite and caloric consumption. Consequently, if you're considering buying your child an active gaming system to help him or her with weight management, your plan may backfire.
However, active gaming may provide a benefit by breaking up lie-on-the-couch-and-vegetate behavior—a behavior that appears to have health risks unto itself. These games may also serve as a fun family activity and even provide some rehabilitative relief for children who struggle with developmental delays, movement challenges, or injuries. But what it simply won't do is replace actual physical activity.
As always, there are no shortcuts to healthy living. While we might desperately want to believe that active gaming will keep our kids fit, these games have yet to produce such results. But you shouldn't completely lose hope. As new technologies arise, I'm betting we will reach a point in interactive gaming where sports fields and augmented, reality-based game systems will replace our basements and living rooms; at that point, gaming may well translate into real exercise.
Until then, if you want your kids to be more active, why not take the money you might have spent on an active video game and put it towards the tried and true? Keep the area under your Christmas tree free of video game packages. Instead, consider wrapping up some skates, a membership at a local climbing gym, some ski passes, or maybe a promise from you to run with your kids in a local race or triathlon.
And truly, if you really want your children to be active, the best thing you can buy them doesn't cost anything at all. The best thing you can do for them is your own healthy role modelling and the inclusion of physical activity into the very fabric of your family life.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April 2013.