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Virtual fitness

New-age wireless consoles geared to get the player off the couch are still no substitute for actual sport. Sanchita Sharma tells us more.

health and fitness Updated: Dec 23, 2007 02:19 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Pop science writer Steven Johnson’s claim that video games sharpen brains by offering a cognitive workout that hones concentration, forward planning, lateral thinking, and sustained problem-solving skills, has made a bestseller of Everything Bad Is Good for You. His book, along with a series of classroom shootouts by young compulsive gamers, has unfortunately moved the debate on the potential impact of video games on the mind, ignoring their physical fallout in the process.

“Too many children end up exercising only their thumbs and fingers these days. Weight issues are usually the first health problem parents of inactive children have to contend with,” says nutritionist Rekha Sharma, senior vice-president, VLCC. She gets several young patients who are ready to do anything to lose weight, except give up their television and gaming time.

As the chief dietitian at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Sharma had done a series of studies on obesity in children over the past decade. “Most children and adolescents spend an average of three to four hours a day playing video games or watching television at home. Schools just have two games period a week, so most children get almost no physical activity at all,” she says.

Playing video games for several hours every day has been shown to decrease school performance, increase aggression, raise obesity, induce epileptic seizures, and causes postural, muscular and skeletal disorders such as tendonitis, nerve compression, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Though these effects are not likely to occur in most children who usually don’t spend more than a couple of hours playing games each day, parents need to be concerned about two things: the amount of time spent playing, and the content of the games played.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should not spend more than one to two hours per day in front of all electronic screens, including TV, DVDs, video or computer games. This means an average of seven to 14 hours per week.In the US, the average school-age child spends over 37 hours a week in front of a screen (nine hours of which is with video games, with boys averaging 13 hours a week and girls averaging five hours a week).

While there is pan-India data available, adolescents in India spend as much time, if not more, in the virtual world. “Children and adolescents are recommended to undertake at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical exercise each day, which should use at least three times as much energy as is used at rest. Playing outdoor is also a great stress buster, providing instant mental relaxation,” says Sharma.

A slightly healthier option are the new generation of wireless-based computer games, which are meant to stimulate greater interaction and movement during play. They stimulate greater energy expenditure than sedentary games. Still, these are no substitute for playing real sports, reports this week’s British Medical Journal.

Researchers at Liverpool John Moore’s University in the UK compared the energy expenditure of adolescents when playing sedentary and new generation active computer games and found the energy expenditure was increased only by 60 kcal per hour during active compared with sedentary gaming. The consoles used for the study were XBOX 360 and Nintendo Wii, which are geared to get players off the couch and get them involved with the game.

New thinking indicates that a lot also depends on how much time you spend wallowing in the virtual world. “Video games are great tools for education, but parents have to watch that the tool does become more important than the subject being taught. They need to supervise the purchase or rental of games to ensure they are age-appropriate,” says Dr Smita Deshpande, head of the department of psychiatry, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.