Can computer games keep you fit?

Behind the Headlines

Tuesday September 2 2008

Any physical activity should be encouraged

“Playing active computer games 'keeps children fit' and could turn the tide of obesity”, reports the Daily Mail. It said that research in children between six and 12 years of age found that the “physical effort of playing Nintendo Wii and similar virtual sports console” used up more than four times as many calories as computer games played sitting down. It said that just 35 minutes a day of playing such games burns 150 calories, enough to stop weight gain.

This was a small study looking at heart rate and energy expenditure in 18 children while they played sedentary and active computer games. It did not use the Nintendo Wii, or look at weight loss or obesity prevention. The finding that active gaming burns more calories than seated gaming or resting in the very short-term is not surprising. Children should exercise and active gaming could be a way to get those who spend a lot of time playing computer games to do more. However, it remains to be seen whether the health benefits of active gaming are as good as those from conventional exercise and play, which should still be encouraged.

Where did the story come from?

Robin R. Mellecker and Alison M. McManus from the University of Hong Kong carried out the research. The study was funded by the University of Hong Kong Research Council Strategic Research Theme Public Health. The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal: Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

What kind of scientific study was this?

This was an experimental study carried out in the laboratory. It looked at children’s energy expenditure as they played active or seated computer games.

The researchers enrolled 18 healthy children between six and 12 years of age from local primary schools. The children were asked to visit the laboratory in the morning, having fasted and not exercised for the 12 hours leading up to the experiment. Their energy expenditure was estimated through their oxygen intake and carbon dioxide production during the experiment, which was measured by masks connected to a machine. They also wore heart rate monitors. To get their measurements at rest, the children were asked to lie down and relax as they watched a film of their choice for 20 minutes. Their energy expenditure and heart rate were then measured in the last 15 minutes of this period.

The researchers then got the children to play three different computer games. The first was a 10-pin bowling game that was played sitting down and operated by a computer mouse. The other two were active games that involved more movement. These were another bowling game (XaviX bowling) that required a bowling motion, and a game involving various actions including running, walking, squatting and jumping (XaviX J-Mat). The children played the games for five minutes to familiarise themselves with them. They then played a 25-minute set that included all three games and involved five minutes just sitting looking at the game, five minutes seated bowling, five minutes active bowling, five minutes rest, and five minutes of the J-Mat game. Their heart rates and energy expenditure were measured during each of these periods. The researchers then compared children’s heart rate and energy expenditure at rest and during each game.

What were the results of the study?

Ideally, children should also be encouraged to engage in non-computer related exercise.

The researchers found that both seated and active gaming increased energy expenditure and heart rate compared to being at rest. The seated bowling game increased kilocalories burnt per minute by 39%, the active bowling game by 98%, and the J-Mat game by 451%. Both active games increased children’s energy expenditure compared to the seated games. Only the J-Mat game increased heart rate compared to the seated game, and the heart rate in this game was reported to be similar to that seen with vigorous exercise.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers concluded that playing active computer games leads to “meaningful increases in energy expenditure and heart rate” compared with seated games. They suggest that active computer games may provide “appealing activity alternatives” for children, and that development of more games that provide exercise and entertainment is needed.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This study does indicate that children will burn more calories with computer games that are active than games that are seated. There are a few points to consider when interpreting these results:

  • This study was in only a small number of children; larger studies will be needed to confirm these findings.
  • The children in this study were new to these games and only played them for a short period of time as they wore monitoring equipment. It is possible that the results may not have been the same if the children were familiar with the games, had played them for a longer period of time, or were not wearing the monitoring equipment.
  • Five of the children included were overweight, but none was obese. Results may be different for children who are obese.
  • The fact that children all performed the games in the same order, rather than in random order, may have an effect on their energy expenditure.
  • Energy expenditure during gaming was compared to a period of rest. It is not clear whether gaming increases energy expenditure any more than normal levels of activity.

Active gaming may provide a way of getting children who normally play a lot of computer games to exercise more. However, it is unclear from this study whether this would have an effect on a child’s health or weight in the long term. Ideally, children should also be encouraged to engage in non-computer related exercise.

 

Sir Muir Gray adds…

It is the amount of activity not the type that matters. Active computer games have a part to play, but as a substitute for sedentary computer games, not as a substitute for swimming or play.

 

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Computer games can help you stay slim. The Sun, September 02 2008

Playing active computer games 'keeps children fit' and could turn the tide of obesity. Daily Mail, September 02 2008

Nintendo Wii 'could prevent weight gain'. The Daily Telegraph, September 02 2008

Links to the science

Mellecker RR, McManus AM. Energy Expenditure and Cardiovascular Responses to Seated and Active Gaming in Children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2008; 162: 886-891

EditorialPate RR. Physically Active Video Gaming. An Effective Strategy for Obesity Prevention? Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2008; 162: 895-896

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