The United States population is growing, and I don’t mean our numbers. There’s no delicate way to say this, but too many of us are fat—really fat. Obesity in this country is an epidemic: about a third of all adults and 17 percent of children—three times the rate of 20 years ago—are obese, and not a single state in the union has met the Healthy People 2010 goal to lower obesity rates below 15 percent. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer… the list goes on. And the economic cost is staggering: obesity hammers us with a $200 billion medical bill, and it’s only getting worse. But most distressing of all, you know all those happy, carefree kids you see everyday? They’ll probably die before you do. That’s right, for the first time in US history, today’s generation of  kids probably won’t outlive their parents.

Okay, now that you’re paying attention, here’s the good news: The power to end obesity is in our hands. All we have to do is eat better and get more exercise—and there’s a great tool out there that can help. Anyone? Anyone?

You guessed it: videogames. Specifically, exergaming.

Active videogames have been around since 1982, but didn’t really take off until the introduction of Dance Dance Revolution in the early 2000s. The game’s surprising popularity tore the exergaming market wide open, and gave birth to the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 Kinect, and Playstation Move—all variations on a theme, and with the laudable goal of getting average Americans off their asses and moving.

And boy do we move. Kung Fu, boxing, cycling, tennis, bowling, dancing, track and field—the list of options is virtually endless, and more and better games come to market every year.

“Okay,” you ask, with perhaps a hint of cynicism, “but do they really work?”

According to researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Massachusetts, they do. They found that kids who played exergames for 10 minutes got a workout as good as or significantly better than a 10-minute walk at three-miles-per hour on a treadmill. In the March 7 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Bruce Bailey, PhD (Brigham Young) and Kyle McInnis, ScD (U. Mass), wrote that

Exergaming has the potential to increase physical activity and have a favorable influence on energy balance, and may be a viable alternative to traditional fitness activities.”

And guess which is more fun. In fact, the researchers noted that entertainment appeal is exactly what makes the games so effective: Kids enjoy them, and are more likely to stick with the program—and reap the benefits—as a result. Now before you accuse me of hailing videogames as a panacea for US health issues, no one believes that exergaming can, or should, replace regular physical activity. As McInnis and Bailey noted,

Although exergaming is most likely not the solution to the epidemic of reduced physical activity in children, it appears to be a potentially innovative strategy that can be used to reduce sedentary time, increase adherence to exercise programs, and promote enjoyment of physical activity.”

George Velarde agrees. He’s the chair of the P.E. department at Sierra Vista Junior High in Canyon Country, CA. In 2003, he added an exergaming room to the school’s fitness center, and had this to say about it:

The kids don’t even know they’re working out, but they are working out even more at moderate to vigorous levels because of exergaming.”

Dr. Adam Noah—Technical Director of Long Island University’s ADAM Center and MoCap Lab, and an avid (and quite accomplished) gamer—plays DDR regularly, and he can tell you from experience that it’s much more like working out than gaming:

So when I play at this level [the highest level], I’m reaching 15 times my resting metabolism. That’s roughly equivalent to running on a treadmill at 10, 12 mph. People don’t do that. Yet I’m enjoying playing the game.”

And running on a treadmill is, in a word, boring.

Alright, so what’s the point of all this anyway? Just this: videogames, rather than being evil devices that turn people into couch potatoes, can actually play a key role in helping us get healthier. They may never replace real-world physical exercise, but when was the last time you broke a sweat watching TV? Think about it.

The LA Times has an article on exergaming studies here

…and WedMD has one on games and weight loss here.

For more on exergames and physical education, check out this link.

You can find a collection of news articles related to exergaming here.

There’s a discussion about exergaming research here.

Check out this article about gaming and fitness…

…and this one, too.

And for those interested, this link gives a brief history of exergaming.

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