To stay healthy, kids might not have to press pause on their video game habits.
Playing active video games that encourage dancing and low-intensity activity may actually help overweight and obese kids lose weight, according to researchers at Baton Rouge’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
One in five American children is obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with Louisiana ranking fourth in the nation in childhood obesity.
With children spending about eight hours a day in front of screens — TVs, video games or computers — using video games to help kids lose fat or maintain a healthy weight is practical, said Amanda Staiano, a Pennington researcher studying video games’ effect on obesity.
“I don’t think screen time is an absolute solution by any means, but it needs to be part of the solution,” Staiano said. “We’re all using screens all the time, adults are, too. That’s just how our culture has evolved.”
This month Staiano began a study of obese boys and girls ages 10 to 12 who supplement their physical activity with active video games. Called Game Squad, the study recruits area youngsters and supplies them with an Xbox gaming system, a package of games and a FitBit activity monitor.
The 24-week study matches children with a coach who will teleconference with them via their Xbox every week and encourage them. They increase their daily activity over the first few weeks to reach the doctor-recommended 60 minutes per day. Participants only play on the Xbox three days a week — they have to find other ways to get moving the other four.
For Jerry Walker Jr., a Baton Rouge 11-year-old, the study means an excuse to play video games on school days. Usually they are off-limits until the weekend, said his mother, Marisa Page.
“He was so excited,” said Page, 50. “He was like a kid with a lollipop.”
Page plays the games with her son regularly, competing to see who has the best moves. The latest gaming system technology, the Xbox One Kinect, uses an infrared camera to pick up their movements.
While Jerry likes to play outside, he could use additional avenues for physical activity, Page said, and the Xbox games provide an easy workout.
“Where I live at, there aren’t a lot of kids out,” said Page, who signed up her son after seeing the study on the Pennington website. “He likes to ride his bicycle. Sometimes he and I will get out and play a little basketball. He knows once Friday gets here he can play his Xbox.”
Three weeks into the study, the daily exercise regimen has not interfered with Jerry’s homework schedule, Page said.
“He’s having a blast with it,” Page said.
Game Squad is a follow-up to Pennington’s Klub Kinect program in 2014 that recruited obese, inactive 14- to 18-year-old girls to play dance games together for 90 minutes three days a week. Along with increases in physical activity, Staiano said they saw improvements in self confidence.
Some of the girls had “dropped out of traditional school because of bullying related to their work or health problems related to their weight,” Staiano said. “Increasing their self confidence, that is something that is going to stay with them.”
More complete results from the study will be published in an upcoming scholastic journal article.
Staiano’s research was inspired by a shorter New Zealand study that found obese children playing active video games lost some body fat. She designed Game Squad as a slightly longer program to learn whether obese children can gradually alter their sedentary lifestyles and become more active with the help of games.
Obese children usually don’t need to lose quite as much weight as an overweight or obese adult, Staiano said. Most need to lose 3 to 5 percent of their body weight.
“With children, if you can just get them nudged back to the healthy growth trajectory, it’s easier for them as opposed to adults, who have had potentially decades worth of being in that high weight range,” she said.
Staiano said obesity has been declared a disease by the American Medical Association.
“We need to start treating it like a disease,” she said. “In fact, it is the most common disease in childhood.”