If playing video games makes kids less active and contributes to childhood obesity, why not create more video games that require activity? This question prompted Mayo Clinic researchers to scientifically measure the energy spent playing video games and examine options to make children hooked to electronic screens more active. Their findings are published in the current issue of the medical journal Paediatrics.
In the US, screen time (both TV and video games) now averages eight hours a day among children. “We know if children play video games that require movement, they burn more energy than they would while sitting and playing traditional screen games,” writes Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, Mayo obesity researcher and study leader. “The point is that children — very focused on screen games — can be made healthier if activity is a required part of the game.”
While the study’s scope is small — only 25 children were followed — it was conducted with scientific accuracy. Fifteen children were of normal weight for their height and frame; and 10 were mildly obese. Both groups were tested while sitting and watching television, playing a traditional video game, playing two types of activity-required video games, and watching television while walking on a treadmill.
The results showed that sitting while watching television and playing traditional video games expended the same amount of energy. When participants played with the first activity-oriented video game, one that uses a camera to virtually “place” them in the game where they catch balls and other objects, their energy expenditure tripled. The result was the same for the lean and mildly obese children.
Walking on a treadmill while watching TV also tripled expenditure for the lean group, but showed a nearly fivefold increase for the mildly obese group. While using a dance video game, both groups burned the most calories, but it was considerably more for the obese group — just over six times more than sitting still.
The Mayo researchers suggest requiring activity in more video and computer games is one potential approach for reversing rising obesity. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that children should not spend more than two hours a day in front of electronic screens, including TV, video and computer games. This means children get screen time that averages 14 hours a week.
While there is no published data for India, clinicians say an average school-age child in urban India spends over four hours a day— 28 hours a week — in front of a screen. And its impact is showing in the rising rates of obesity in urban children.
Compounding the problem is the increase in the use of computers as a study tool. “Children are asked to research on the internet these days. Once they are sitting before the computer screen, it becomes very difficult for adults to constantly monitor whether they are studying or surfing for fun,” says Anita Mahant, mother of two adolescents studying in Delhi Public School, RK Puram.
Agrees Dr Jitendra Nagpal, senior consultant psychiatrist, Vidya Sagar Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences: “Computers, including its use for educational purposes, are contributing to the obesity epidemic as the only part of their body far too many children are exercising are their thumbs.”
What can make a difference is keeping track of what children do. A study reported in the Journal of Adolescence last year said that children whose parents limit the amount of time they could play and monitored content of the games do better in school and get into fewer fights. “It is for doctors and parents to advise children on choosing healthy habits such as limiting screen time, becoming more active and eating the right kind of food,” says nutritionist Ishi Khosla.
“Computers and games are great tools for education, but it is for parents to ensure that the tool does become more important than the subject being taught,” adds Nagpal.