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Get in the game: Exergames encourage physical activity, enhance cognitive thinking

Gaming, or the playing of video or computer games, is not often described a healthy activity. Some would argue that sitting in front of a screen all day engaged in games is an unhealthy and socially destructive habit. But not necessarily so, said Barbara Chamberlin, a game researcher at the New Mexico State University Learning Games Lab.

“We have such a fear of screen time that we’ve been trained to think that screen time is the enemy,” Chamberlin said, “but screen time isn’t the enemy anymore, because screen time can be one of the best ways to educate people, and also one of the best ways to get people moving.”

With the invention of the Nintendo Wii in 2006, and the development of the Microsoft Kinect for the Xbox 360 in 2010 – each are gaming systems that require physical movement to complete tasks – Chamberlin said instead of putting a limit on screen time, we should be putting a limit on the time we spend sitting still.

“The Wii changed everybody’s thinking,” Chamberlin said. “Now all the major consoles have active gaming components to them.”

The NMSU Learning Game Lab was created to be a space where kids could come in and test physical activity games, as well as games that require little to no movement. Researchers in the game lab work to develop software to benefit people in areas such as nutrition, math, science and food safety. Current projects include innovative science- and math-based games and animations, a national initiative on active games, and researchactivities with youth, interactive websites and creative video productions.

“In our constant quest to find out what it is about games that is engaging and appealing and so much fun to play, we try to investigate for ourselves, so we can apply those things to educational games,” Chamberlin said.

Exergames Unlocked is another project researchers are working on at the game lab. Exergames refer to video games that encourage physical activity.

“Under our grant, we have a pediatric psychologist who is looking at social and family impacts of games, we have an extension educator who is looking at how she can extend the benefits of organized sports through exergames and we have an exercise physiologist in California who is measuring caloric intake,” Chamberlin said.

She said researchers in the game lab found that games with nonstandard controllers, such as the Wii, were not only highly enjoyable because they incorporate physical activity, but they are more intuitive. Games for the Wii also allow all age levels to participate, including parents, making it more socially interactive and productive.

“I think what is exciting about video games is that we’re seeing benefits across the board in caloric expenditure, but what we’re also seeing is increased daily activity, and research tells us that even smalls bursts of activity throughout the day can be just as powerful and have the same benefits as prolonged exposure.”

The physical benefits

Chamberlin said game consoles such as the Wii offer games specifically geared toward giving the player a workout. Games such as “Wii Sports” also encourage kids who might otherwise shy away from playing traditional sports to get involved in a physical activity.

“There are those kids who don’t feel comfortable doing traditional activities, but if they feel comfortable playing games on the Wii, then that may build their confidence to play traditional sports,” said Michelle Garza, coordinator of exergames education and outreach. “If they learn to play tennis on the Wii, then maybe they will be interested in (traditional) tennis eventually.”

Garza said she doesn’t think nonstandard control games will ever completely replace traditional sports, or that one is necessarily better that the other.

“What the Wii and exergames should do is replace passive screen time,” Garza said. “Instead of kids who are going to sit there watching TV or playing passive games, we would rather them get up and play active games.”

Garza said active games also provide ways for kids to be active when going outside is not an option due to weather or other circumstances.

“A little bit of activity is better than no activity,” she said.

Matt Estrada, 17, said he plays video games 5 to 6 hours a day on his Xbox 360 if his friends are playing with him, and about one hour if his friends are not online.

Estrada said he prefers to play standard-control games, but that he also plays games on the Wii with his friends and family. Estrada said he usually plays “Wii Sports” with his 9-year-old brother.

“We play baseball (on the Wii), because my brother is afraid of the ball (in traditional sports),” he said.

Estrada said he has also played other exergames on the Wii, such as virtual yoga and boxing.

“The Wii gives you a good workout,” Estrada said. “It works different muscle areas in your arms and legs.”

Estrada said he feels he gets the best workout from the boxing game.

“You have to move side to side and move your arms a lot,” he said.

The cognitive benefits

Not only do modern video games help to burn calories, but Chamberlin said video games can also be used to enhance cognitive thinking.

“When we are trying to make the argument that we want to have more games, people are hesitant,” Chamberlin said, “but games can be such an efficient, engaging, realistic way to learn content.”

In fact, playing a physical activity or game boosts brain cells, Chamberlin said, and project team members of Exergames Unlocked have found that schools are one of the best places to observe the cognitive benefits of video games.

“(The test results) are showing so far that kids are more focused (on tests) after performing physical activity,” Chamberlin said.

California’s Orange County Down Syndrome Foundation have found that children with Down Syndrome can play exergames and enjoy them despite varying physical and coordination abilities.

“I think (game developers) are just now getting hip to the fact that their audience may not just be you and your kids in your living room,” Chamberlin said. “It could be a teacher in a classroom.”

What’s next?

The future of video games, computer games and even games on your cell phone is moving at a rapid pace, and Chamberlin said we may start seeing the incorporation of video games in some unexpected places sooner than we think.

Video games are already popping up in gyms and soon, they may even be accessible at places like the doctor’s office, or any other place where people are waiting and need something to occupy their time.

“We have all these new technologies, and we’re just now saying ‘How can we use these in an important way?'” she said.

Chamberlin said through exergames, physical activity is being presented in a way that is fun, social and a form of entertainment, as opposed being solely a way to get to get exercise.

“I think we know we’re supposed to eat well, and we know we’re supposed to exercise,” Chamberlin said. “Knowledge isn’t the problem, the problem we all have is making time in our day and making it a priority, and video games make it easier to do that.”

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Alexia Severson can be reached at; (575) 541-5453.

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Exergame Fitness is leading a new movement incorporating technology into fitness. We provide a new way to engage people in fitness, through gamification and technology. By doing this, we create socially engaging, supportive, and inviting fitness communities worldwide