Student Well-Being

Value of E-Games Touted for Youths’ Physical Activity

By Bryan Toporek — January 15, 2013 6 min read
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Last week, I told you about a study on active e-games and their potential impact on students’ physical-activity levels.

Long story short, students in grades 3-5 expended enough energy when playing certain e-games to meet the intensity criteria for vigorous activity. Students in grades 6-8, however, didn’t reach the vigorous activity level when playing e-games.

Earlier this afternoon, I spoke with Todd Miller, the lead study author and an associate professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, to find out more about his research and the potential of e-games for keeping youths physically active.

Below, you’ll find an edited transcript of our conversation.

Your new study found that e-games, such as DanceDanceRevolution (DDR) and Orbis, can help certain students expend enough energy to meet the intensity criteria for vigorous activity. Do you have any theories why students in grade 3-5 met the vigorous activity benchmark, but students in grades 6-8 didn’t?

I’m not really sure. There seems to be sort of a cultural thing that previous research has shown before. As kids get older, they tend to get less active. It could be something where as a kid gets older, they get more self-conscious about running around or sweating, and this is especially true with girls. When the sample was separated between girls and boys, the least active of any group were the girls in grades 6-8. As far as why exactly that is, I don’t know that. I don’t know anybody who knows that.

Specifically, you found that girls in grades 6-8 barely expended enough energy to meet the moderate intensity level when playing e-games or when participating in physical education. What do you think that says about middle-school-aged girls’ activity levels in general?

I don’t know that it’s really safe to generalize that every 6th to 8th grade girl in phys. ed. class in the U.S. will show the same level of activity. It could be that the P.E. teacher doesn’t enforce that level of activity. If the kid wants to not participate and sit on the bleachers, some teachers would just let them do that. I think it’s probably safe to say that as kids get older, they will generally decrease their activity. It’s especially true as adults. Even in the animal kingdom, you see animals playing when they’re young, and they stop when they get older. It’s not surprising.

What can be done to increase the activity level of middle school girls? Or middle school students in general?

Well, I think it’s difficult to really say what the best way to increase those things are if we don’t really know what’s causing the decrease. It may be that trying to increase activity during P.E. class is not realistic. Maybe it’s more realistic to try to incorporate activities in the classroom. There are some initiatives that do that, where learning in the classroom is coupled with some type of increased activity, not necessarily exercise, but something that gets them moving.

The other thing is, I think a lot of it has to do with content. If you’re playing a game that you just don’t like to play, then you’re not going to want to play it. It could be when kids are younger, they’re just more interested in the offerings that they have in P.E. class, but when they get to grades 6-8, they just don’t have interest.

I think in general as a society, we need to rethink the notion that we have these “guidelines” for physical activity where we have this discreet block of time where we have to meet this certain level of activity. When you look at people’s activity levels, they don’t increase when we put out new guidelines. We just need to get people more active throughout the day. We need to move more. We’ve essentially engineered movement out of society. People can just sit there all day and be relatively productive. I don’t think we can undo that.

Your study specifically looked at urban youths, a majority of whom were African-American (85 percent) and qualified for subsidized school lunch (65 percent). Do you believe the findings of your study can be extrapolated to suburban youths, too? Or is more research needed?

I definitely wouldn’t extrapolate that. In our school, they really didn’t have a whole lot of equipment because it was always getting stolen. Really, all they had for P.E. was basketball. If people wanted to play, they’d play, or otherwise, they’d sit there. It was a combination of horseplay, tag, and it wasn’t a lot of structure. That would have a lot to do with how interested people are in playing those games. If you went to a school with more resources, maybe they’d be able to initiate more participation.

A lot of it depends on the teachers, too. There’s a lot of variability there. If the teacher isn’t very engaged—if kids are sitting in the bleachers playing with Game Boys—there’s not much incentive for kids to be active.

I think it’s probably true that if you look anywhere, grades 3-8, I think it’s probably true that the older kids would participate less in physical activity or P.E.

What about high-school-aged children? Your study didn’t specifically examine them, but do you believe that active e-games could have similar positive effects?

I think so. I think that, again, it’s really an issue of content. There are certain games that kids like to play more than others. I’d be willing to bet that high school girls are even less active than they are at younger ages, because there’s really a larger body image issue there. My wife told me that she went through four years of high school and participated in P.E. twice. It messes up your makeup, you don’t want to shower, you don’t want to get naked in the locker room. She’d just tell the teacher that she had cramps or something. I imagine that it’s a pretty common behavior among girls. Certainly, it’s much less convenient for a girl to participate in gym class than a boy. Even if you just look at the amount of time it takes to get ready after gym class is over.

Do you believe schools should replace traditional physical education activities (such as basketball, kickball, etc.) with e-games?

I think they should be more of a complement. Like anything else, any activity is only good if someone’s willing to participate. If you hate basketball, it doesn’t matter how many calories you could burn playing basketball if you’re not going to play it. E-games come under a lot of criticism because they say you don’t meet the standard of vigorous activity. Well, neither does basketball if you don’t play it and just stand there.

The more activities that are available to a kid, the more likely they are to participate in P.E. If I’m an overweight or obese kid, I may not have any interest in playing basketball, but I’d be perfectly happy playing DDR. Maybe for a kid who’s fit, DDR might not have a huge effect on their fitness level. But if you’re unfit, it could have a huge effect.

I definitely don’t think P.E. should be replaced, because it’s pretty much accepted that you burn the most calories in P.E. If the kids are willing to do that, that’s great. If not, why not offer other activities?

These games might not meet the intensity guidelines, but does that mean you shouldn’t use them? If you’re not forced to play basketball, then you just stand on the court. It only meets them if you play it. [Critics are] discounting the value of exergames because they don’t meet the vigorous activity, but in some kids in some situations, they do.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.