Technology is rapidly changing the field of physical activity and health. It has become a convenient way to replace time in front of the computer screen, but not time outside. Whether it’s exercise games like the ones made popular by Nintendo’s motion-controlled Wii console, apps like MyFitnessPal or fitness trackers like Fitbit, more of us are using technology to augment and improve our exercise and health habits.
At the University of Minnesota’s School of Kinesiology, we’re researching the effects of exercise games on preschool children – an increasingly popular segment of the market thanks to the efforts of companies like LeapFrog and its LeapTV active gaming system, as well as Nintendo’s Nickelodeon Fit Wii games. We’re seeing promising results; I believe exercise gaming has the potential to drive better health outcomes for people of all ages.
Exercise Games Promote Childhood Fitness
Childhood obesity is a significant problem in the United States. We know that effective and evidence-based early childhood fitness interventions can help establish health habits and contribute to prevention of obesity later in life. We believe that exercise games and activity-tracking technology can be a powerful way to get children excited and engaged with exercise.
We conducted a study of 261 third-grade students, funded by the National Institute of Health, that tests how effective an exercise gaming-based intervention is in creating positive health outcomes compared to a traditional physical education curriculum. Based on our preliminary results, we’ve shown that exercise games can be just as effective as physical education classes. This is important; it shows that exercise games are not just a fad and can be part of our approach to capturing the attention of students who are not drawn to athletics and physical education.
Using the LeapTV system, we studied the effect of exercise gaming on preschoolers. We tested this home-based intervention on 58 preschool children, ranging from four- to six-years old. We saw our test group make significant improvement in several areas, including BMI (body-mass index). Interestingly, we saw the biggest improvement in our test subject’s cognitive skills – demonstrating that exercise games can be just as beneficial to a child’s cognitive development as it is to their physical health.
Finally, we’re witnessing impressive results with young adults (ages 18-26) by connecting an exercise gaming fitness app with a conventional stationary bicycle. Our participants played the mobile exercise game Greedy Rabbit, which connects to a stationary bike via a Bluetooth connection to match the speed of the onscreen rabbit with the player’s cycling speed. The game also allows the resistance of the bike to increase or decrease based on in-game events. We tracked their exertion and effort with accelerometers. During the study, we saw that the group using the game-enhanced program demonstrated equal effort to the control group, but also showed increased interest – an important factor in motivation, especially in younger students.
Tips for Using Exercise Games and Fitness Technology Effectively
Use exercise games to replace screen time, not outside activities. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about exercise games. We hope that active, fitness-oriented apps and games can replace sedentary time young people spend using tablets, watching television or playing traditional games – not physical activities like sports, biking or outside play.
Use fitness technology as part of a quality program. Exercise gaming isn’t a magic bullet; it needs to be part of a holistic approach that includes good nutrition. The purpose of our research is to find the best ways to implement exercise gaming to improve health outcomes.
Be informed. With so many exercise games, apps and fitness tracker devices on the market, it can be confusing for users. To help guide parents, teachers and individuals, my team and I have published a book, Technology in Physical Activity and Health Promotion, which explores the challenges and possibilities offered by integrating technology into physical activity.
Track your progress. The fitness tracking data created by devices like the Fitbit or Apple Watch can help you stay motivated and reach your goals. Tracking your food intake with the variety of diet apps on the market has shown to help users cut calories.
Use social media for support. Making lifestyle changes can often be a daunting task. Social media can help us get support from friends and family – and connect with others who share similar interests and fitness goals.
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