Exercise video games offer fewer health benefits than many assume

Three-quarters of Americans believe video games that involve physical activity can be part of a fitness regime, according to a recent study by the UnitedHealth Group, a health insurance company in Minnetonka, Minn.

The same study also found that some 60 percent of people with children at home believe kids should be encouraged to play the games, known as "exergames."

"There's a huge appetite for gaming, so we wanted to know if it could help people be more active. Our study said yes, especially with families with young children," said Dr. Richard Migliori, UnitedHealth's executive vice president of health services.

UnitedHealth conducted the survey — involving 1,015 respondents age 18 or older — partly because of the steep increase in lifestyle-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes in recent years, Migliori said. Forty percent of patients with UnitedHealth insurance are diabetic or pre-diabetic, he said.

"When I was young, we weren't allowed in the house after school," said Migliori. "We had to go out and play. But today's kids are sedentary and become obese. Lifestyle choices are causing diseases that lead to premature deaths."

Still, some experts are skeptical about exergames' effectiveness, and another study at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston that was published in the April issue of Pediatrics found that having exergames in the house does not get kids off the couch.

Chicago-area fitness specialists like Ben McGlathery, personal trainer at Loyola Center for Fitness in Maywood, say exergames are "better than nothing" even though they keep users inside and most don't include resistance or weight-bearing exercise.

They can be a first step for obese people and others who are not comfortable going to a gym or exerting themselves out in public, said McGlathery. "For the obese, people who have been sick or for new moms, an active video game can be a transition," he said.

Pete McCall, exercise physiologist with the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise, said nothing beats getting outside and "doing the real thing."

"But for snowbound people in the northern states, and for people who just don't have exercise in their lives, it's a start," McCall said.

In its studies, ACE found that older adults like exergames that incorporate music, competition and realism. Those participants said exergames are acceptable alternatives to the sports they simulate, especially if they no longer have access to the real thing.

Most exergames require less energy expenditure and calorie burn than their real counterparts, said McCall. They vary by game and by game level. The "easy" level of the Dance Town game, for example, compares to walking at two miles per hour, while the "hard" level compares to three, he said.

Tom Baranowski, professor of pediatrics at Baylor and author of the Pediatrics study, said he gave 78 kids, ages 9 to 12, two exergames for their homes, then tracked their physical activity.

"There was no increase in physical activity among kids with exergames," Baranowski said. "Some used their wrists, not their bodies, to play the games. Others used the games for a while, but compensated by doing fewer other activities."

Baranowski's study included children with body mass indexes of 50 to 90, meaning they were obese or at risk of obesity. The percentage of minorities was larger than that of the average population. "This was deliberate because we wanted to look at those especially at risk of obesity, which includes Hispanics and blacks," he said. The children's gender did not affect their activity, he said.

Unlike some other studies, Baranowski said, his did not prescribe use of the games. "We gave them the games but did not tell them when or how often to use them," he said. "So the kids made the choices."

Some employers encourage the use of exergames and other forms of exercise through incentives, said Magliori. "The employer helps pay for health insurance if the employee exercises and controls his weight, blood pressure and BMI," he said.

UnitedHealth also provides its member companies with gadgets to help. Its OptumizeMe, for example, is an app that enables employees to use their phones to compete with their colleagues in weight loss or exercise goals.

"Sometimes," he said, "that's what it takes."

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