Health & Fitness

Can video games stop the holiday slump?

Neveah Garcia, 8, jumps at Leataata Floyd Elementary as she wears a Nerf Energy Rush bracelet during a Boys and Girls Club Kids program Dec. 22.
Neveah Garcia, 8, jumps at Leataata Floyd Elementary as she wears a Nerf Energy Rush bracelet during a Boys and Girls Club Kids program Dec. 22.

A new line of “exergaming” products for mobile phones and gaming consoles may be motivating an increasingly sedentary generation of children toward better health.

Exergaming, or technology-driven physical activity, emerged around 2005 with video games such as “Wii Fit” and “Dance Dance Revolution,” which required players to jump and dance on an attachable mat with the results shown on screen. As technology advanced, games such as “Xbox Kinect” began to include cameras and motion sensors so that players could move more freely. Children typically burn between four and seven calories per minute playing such games, according to a report from the Entertainment Software Association. That’s slightly more than what they’d burn walking at 3 mph on a treadmill.

Most recently, game developers have moved to mobile, pushing products that track physical activity and reward the player accordingly with new skills or extra points. The latest example, “Pokémon GO,” had players walking for miles to catch high-value creatures, with some claiming their addiction to the game helped them shed serious pounds.

Exergaming is a new addition to the Boys & Girls program at Leataata Floyd Elementary School in Land Park, which serves about 130 students with before- and after-school sessions focused on physical activity and homework help. Earlier this month the program received a shipment of game kits that include an activity tracker, soccer ball and mobile game. Children who move while wearing the trackers can earn “energy points,” which lets them play the mobile game when they’re finished exercising. United Healthcare is donating the Hasbro game to 1,500 clubs across the country.

Shannon McPhedran, resource development director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Sacramento, said she thought the mobile game would be a great incentive for the students, who spend a lot of time on their phones anyway. On a recent morning before school, about a dozen children were wearing their trackers while dancing to hip-hop music and jumping rope.

Parent Shanita Douglas said she’s glad her 6-year-old daughter, Na’Riyiah, gets to keep the big blue fitness band, and she’s looking forward to using the tracker to see how active her daughter is over the holiday break.

“I believe in keeping my child busy, so she knows what she does at school is more important than hanging out with friends,” Douglas said. “I might keep it on them all day so I’ll know what they have been doing. You always want to know their energy level so you know if they need to move more or just sit down.”

Physical activity and nutritional education are part of the daily schedule at Boys & Girls Clubs, McPhedran said. Most of the children who attend the school live in the neighboring Marina Vista-Alder Grove public housing development, and about 83 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on household income.

Many children don’t have regular access to healthful foods or safe places to walk and run, McPhedran said.

“We’re happy the kids will stay active over winter break when normally it’s cold and they just want to stay inside and watch TV,” she said. “Childhood obesity is an issue. That’s one of the reasons the club has adopted healthy lifestyle as a core goal – so they grow up understanding healthy food and having a love for activity. We think that if they’re involved in something healthy, they’ll be less likely to seek out dangerous activities.”

Obesity remains a challenge for U.S. children, and disproportionately affects low-income families. About 15 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds in the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program are obese, compared with 9 percent of all children in the same age range, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity affects about 17 percent of all children and adolescents nationwide, up from 14 percent in 2000.

During the past decade, children have also gotten more attached to technology. Today’s children and teens spend about eight hours a day absorbing media including video games, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Federal and local officials have embraced such habits as a way to promote health by pushing exergaming. In 2010, as part of her Let’s Move! campaign, first lady Michelle Obama put out a call for fitness and nutrition apps designed for children. In April 2012, the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition launched the Active Play Presidential Active Lifestyle Award to encourage children to achieve their recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity through video game play.

A growing body of studies on exergaming has shown varying degrees of success with the technology, which is being piloted in schools, senior centers and even gyms. Cynthia Carter Ching, a child development researcher at the UC Davis School of Education, has spent the past four years conducting a federally funded study of an online game that syncs with activity trackers.

Her team tested the game at two regional schools, one urban and one suburban. They found that the game motivated students – temporarily.

“Kids were really, really into it for about a month,” Carter Ching said. “Then they’d played the games and were looking for new levels and new worlds to go to. Novelty only lasts for so long.”

That kind of short-term engagement in physical activity isn’t enough to make long-lasting lifestyle changes, she said.

“They’re not designed to help kids think about the pattern in their daily lives and how to make decisions to be more active. The market is pretty much saturated with games that encourage kids to move, but don’t make them think about how, why and when they move.”

Exergaming is more effective when it’s part of a comprehensive health education program, Carter Ching said. It also tends to work better for children already growing up in healthy environments.

“When kids were attempting to make choices in their lives outside school to be more active – to get more steps and go further with the game – they were often constricted by their surrounding environments if there weren’t a lot of safe walking routes to school,” she said. “The ones who seemed to be the most engaged with it were pretty active already.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola