So much for quick fixes: active video games don’t make kids more active

(Post by CLAIRE MCCARTHY)

It seemed like such a great idea.

We need kids to be more active. With a third of US kids overweight or obese, and studies showing that childhood obesity leads to adult obesity, getting the recommended hour a day of activity is more important than ever. Problem is, kids aren’t doing it. For all sorts of reasons, some good and most bad, our kids are turning into couch potatoes.

I was getting really frustrated with my inability to get my patients moving. Then I heard about active video games, like Wii Fit and Just Dance and Dance Dance Revolution, and I thought: this is perfect. Kids love video games.

I loved this idea. I didn’t even freak out when my mother-in-law bought my daughter a Wii console; they will play active games, I thought, and it will be great for those stuck-inside days or the days when I’m just too busy with chores to take the kids to the park or pool. I loved this idea for my patients, as well.  I work in Boston, and some of my patients live in neighborhoods where playing outside isn’t safe. Even the kids who didn’t like sports perked up when I talked about video games. I started recommending active video games to my overweight patients. Everybody was enthusiastic. It was great.

Well, maybe not so much.

In a study just published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers gave Wii consoles to around 80 kids (now there’s a cool study to be part of), along with accelerometers to measure activity level.  Half the kids were given active games, and the other half were given inactive ones. They didn’t tell the kids what to do with the games, and they didn’t stop them from buying or using other games. They wanted to see what they did on their own.

Guess what? They didn’t do anything. The kids who got the active video games weren’t more active (nobody in either group was). They might have played the games, but they sat down more afterwards to make up for it, because the net increase in exercise was essentially zero. Having the Wii did squat.

To be honest, this does reflect my own experience as a parent and pediatrician. My kids like Super Mario Kart more than Just Dance; given the choice between an active game and no game they choose no game more often than not. And when I see my patients again and ask them how much they are playing active video games, there are a lot of embarrassed silences and averted eyes.

The problem is that left to their own devices, kids these days don’t tend to choose physical activity.

Getting kids active isn’t as easy as giving them a Wii, it turns out. Because the problem isn’t that we haven’t made being active interesting enough. The problem is that left to their own devices, kids these days don’t tend to choose physical activity. And that’s a really, really big problem.

We think of childhood as being a more active time than adulthood—but according to the Centers for Disease Control about half of adults are getting enough exercise, while only a quarter of high-schoolers are. Given that being active is something of a learned habit, this isn’t a good trend. Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese now; it’s scary to think where we are headed.

In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking. I should have realized that there is no quick fix. There is no pill to melt the pounds away, no vitamin or sweet drink that takes the place of eating vegetables, no cool video game that will get everyone off the couch. This takes effort, plain and simple.  Not just on the kids’ part, but the parents’ too.

That’s the real take-home of the study: if you want your kid to be healthy not just now but for life, you have to get them moving. You. Not the Wii. Not your kid’s gym teacher. You.

Actually, I take that back. Not just you. Us. We all need to get kids moving. If we want the next generation to be healthy, it will have to be a group effort.  So let’s get at it, all of us parents and doctors and teachers and community leaders and neighbors and everyone: let’s get kids exercising.  Their future, which is our future, depends on it.

Want to learn more about active video games? Read a Dream story on this topic, featuring David Bickham from the Center on Media and Child Health.

Dr. Claire McCarthy, Boston, Massachusetts

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Children’s Hospital Boston. Take a look at her blog archive and follow her on Twitter @drClaire. This article was reprinted courtesy of “Children’s Hospital Boston’s Thriving blog“.

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