Can Video Games Count as Exercise?
BY: Stacey Colino
Not long ago, playing video games provided good exercise for kids’ thumbs -- and not much else. Now, a new generation of more active video games, like Wii Sports, is changing all that. The big question on everyone’s mind: Can these new active video games help you, your spouse and your kids get (or stay) fit?
The answer is maybe. A study at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., found that kids burn more than twice as many calories playing activity-promoting video games -- such as Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) and EyeToy -- than just sitting and watching TV. With DDR, you control the game by stepping on an electronic dance pad, while EyeToy uses a special camera to capture an image of the player in motion and literally inserts her into the onscreen Playstation action.
In a recent study at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, 24 volunteers (ages 12 to 25) played DDR at various intensities, then researchers examined their heart rate, VO2 max (a measure of maximum aerobic capacity) and caloric expenditure. It turns out that playing DDR in “difficult mode” produced results comparable to taking a high-impact aerobics class: Heart rates jumped to 76 percent of maximum and participants burned calories at a rate of 480 per hour, reports study leader John Porcari, Ph.D., professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Playing DDR in “standard mode” was the calorie-burning equivalent of riding a bike 12 miles per hour.
Does this mean active video games are as good as regular exercise? “I see it as a supplement, not a substitute,” says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. “These more active video games don’t get you moving to a degree that can serve as a substitute for the real thing.” However, others see it differently: “It isn’t a replacement for exercise -- it is exercise,” Porcari says. “When you’re working that hard [as hard as people did playing DDR in difficult mode], your heart and lungs don’t know what you’re doing. They just know they’re working harder.”
Ultimately, experts agree that the best approach may be to aim for a combination of regular exercise and video exercise. To that end, your family could jog, bike, swim or play (real) tennis four days a week and play active video games twice a week. Or “you could do 30 minutes of formal exercise and 15 minutes of these [video games] most days of the week,” Bryant suggests. However you divvy it up, the key to getting the most from these active video games, says Bryant, is “to move as much as possible and move as much of your body as possible.”
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.