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Exergaming: How technology can get us moving

Can video games be a source of exercise? Memorial researchers want to know.

By Michelle Osmond

Everyone has heard the stories about how this province's children don't get enough exercise and how we have the highest rate of obesity in Canada. This, in turn, can lead to all kinds of chronic diseases.

These topics have been studied in great detail. However, in the age of video gaming and, with that, new technology that integrates physical activity into video games (or exergaming, as it's called) there's a shift in how some of our young people are getting the exercise they need.

Wii Fit is a perfect example. Unlike traditional exercise, however, this new area of physical activity has not been studied much.

Dr. Linda Rohr, an associate professor with the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, and her team have just received funding from the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health and Applied Research (NLCHAR) to delve into this new phenomenon.

According to Dr. Rohr, some preliminary work is in order before we do studies on exergaming. For example, what control group should be used? Do we compare exergaming to traditional exercise? How do we best capture the physiological (i.e. heart rate) and psychological (i.e. enjoyment and motivation) impact of exergaming in youth? How should training sessions be structured? Is free play or prescriptive play better?

"Games like Wii Fit require full body movement and claim to enhance physical function and I think people are attracted to exergames for personal health and social reasons," explained Dr. Linda Rohr. "Many people use exergaming now as a regular social activity. For instance, older adults get together for Wii bowling tournaments; children and youth have exergaming dance parties.

"Exergaming is also used in the school environment to provide alternative physical activity options, and in rehabilitation environments where the feedback provided by exergames allows users to correct and modify their movements in real time.

Preliminary research from our labs shows positive effects of three-four weeks of Wii Fit play on balance and flexibility. Positive social effects of Wii play are therefore possible but this aspect of exergaming is really under investigated," she added.

Dr. Rohr, whose team also includes Dr. Jeannette Byrne, HKR, Psychologist Anne Wareham, Janeway Lifestyle Program, and Dr. Tracey Bridger, Faculty of Medicine, would like to find out more about the physiological and socio-psychological benefits of exergaming. Their initial studies will focus on youth who use exergames; comparing their usual play with what they ask them to do in a lab. The long term plan is to apply the research to groups who have limited mobility and low physical activity levels due to illnesses such as asthma and arthritis or those who live in rural communities without access to recreational facilities and programs.

"It's been shown that missing out on physical activity can lead to low confidence, feelings of exclusion and depression, and negatively impact self-esteem and academic performance," stated Dr. Rohr. "So, as researchers, we need to do what we can to make sure different types of physical activity are available and determine what their benefits are."