This is a question that has launched dozens of studies since the release of Nintendo’s Wii gaming system in late 2006, with results debated in lofty academic journals. Most researchers agree that “exer-gaming” does burn significantly more calories than playing traditional video games, but that’s really not saying much. The real question is whether they burn enough calories to improve health and fitness outcomes—and whether encouraging kids to play these games inspires them to get outside and try the real thing, or simply keeps them hooked on video games.
In some respects, video-game sports are doing a good job of simulating the real thing—injuries, for example. The New England Journal of Medicine reported the first case of “Wiiitis” in 2007, a 29-year-old suffering from tendinitis in his shoulder after playing Wii tennis. Other injuries reported in the medical literature include head trauma in an 8-year-old girl whose brother accidentally hit her while swinging his controller, and, in 2010, the first “Wii fracture” in the foot of a 14-year-old who fell off her Wii Fit balance board.
So far, only few short-term studies (lasting between 6 and 12 weeks) have tried to address the crucial question of whether active video games can actually lead to improved health in children. According to a 2009 review in the journal Pediatrics, none of these found any significant effects on outcomes such as body mass index (bmi), though such changes would generally take longer than the scope of the studies to show up anyway.
On the other hand, three-quarters of young North Americans spend more than 10 hours a week sitting in front of various screens, and studies have found that they’re very unwilling to relinquish that time. With that in mind, even activities that mimic a casual stroll are better than nothing. Scott Leatherdale, the lead author of the Waterloo study, calculates that males who play an hour a day of active video games would burn an extra 483 calories per week—the equivalent of 7.2 pounds of fat per year. “The basic message is that if kids are going to play video games, parents should at least try to get their kids playing games that involve being physically active,” he says. That being said, video games should not replace actual physical activity.”
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