By Whitney Heins. Photography by Dani Rose.
Every parent wants their children to live full and healthy lives. But with the prevalence and popularity of fast food, sugary treats, television, and video games, many of America’s children may not get that opportunity.
As former Surgeon General Richard Carmona put it, “because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
According to statistics from the American Heart Association, one out of three children in the United States is overweight or obese. Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled from 1971 to 2011, making it the number one health concern among parents.
Although numerous factors are contributing to this epidemic, some health officials point to the advent of computer-based video games as the main reason for climbing obesity rates. But the results from a recent UT Department of Nutrition study indicate that some video games may actually increase physical activity.
The research was the subject of Britt MacArthur’s master’s thesis, which was completed with guidance from Dawn Coe, associate professor of exercise physiology, and Hollie Raynor, professor of nutrition and director of UT’s Healthy Eating and Activity Lab.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children participate in at least sixty minutes of moderate—bicycling or walking briskly—to vigorous—running or bicycling uphill—physical activity most days of the week, but a majority of children aren’t doing that,” Raynor said. “Sedentary screen-based activities like video games are often considered a barrier to physical activity because they may be competing for time.”
Fortunately, advances in technology over the past decade have spurred more engaging video games. Today’s gamers can get up and dance, bowl, or even go whitewater rafting without leaving the house.
“It is almost beginning to move into virtual reality,” Raynor added. “And because you have to stand and use full-body movement in these active video games, the amount of energy expended is much greater than those games where you are just sitting.”
The next logical step was for the researchers to measure activity levels for children on a playground and compare them with those playing active video games. To investigate, they observed sixteen normal-weight children during two twenty-minute play sessions—one outside on a playground with balls, hula hoops, and trees, and the other playing the video game River Rush, which requires jumping to navigate winding rapids.
Children between the ages of five and eight were recruited because previous studies had focused on children over ten and used structured play as a comparison—something most children under ten do infrequently. “It’s important to understand physical activity patterns at a young age when lifestyle habits are developing,” Raynor explained.
The participants wore accelerometers on each wrist and around their waist to measure the intensity of their movements. The researchers also recorded minute-by-minute movements using a standardized tool.
The data showed that children playing the video game spent more time engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity compared to those playing outdoors. Although upper-body movements were similar in each session, there was more lower-body movement while playing the video game—meaning more ground was covered.
The takeaway for parents is that active video games can be a source of moderate to vigorous physical activity, but more research needs to be done. “We don’t know how this impacts overall health and we can’t say this is the same as playing outside. But we can say it makes them active,” Raynor said.
Video games have the added benefit of a controlled environment—unlike outdoor play, which is subject to prevailing weather conditions. “People often say it is too cold and rainy or too hot and humid outside, but they can engage in gaming activity inside,” Raynor explained. “And these games remove the time issue because they can be done at any time, and they address parents’ safety concerns about their children playing outside.”
Raynor became interested in obesity even before it became a national epidemic. She has always been fascinated with why people choose the foods they eat. Now she feels compelled to tackle this enormous health challenge.
“We have work to do,” she said. “Obesity puts children—and adults—at greater risk for health issues like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. As an obesity researcher, I am very interested in identifying better ways for us to understand how to be more effective in terms of our interventions so that we can improve the health of the nation.”
Raynor’s hope is that her work can help reverse a very disturbing trend—and prove the surgeon general’s prediction wrong.