Gaming for Weight Loss

Oct 30, 2012, 8:49 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

Amanda E. Staiano, PhD, MPP, Research Fellow, Pennington Biomedical Research Center

Can video games help kids move more and even lose weight?  Long blamed for promoting an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle, video games are gaining a new reputation—by offering opportunities for enhanced physical activity.

Exergames, which are video games that require physical exertion, are popular among children and adults alike. The Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University received a grant from Health Games Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to investigate the game design principles that might make exergames effective physical activity and weight loss tools. Professor Sandra Calvert of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University served as the principal investigator and was joined by myself and Dr. Anisha Abraham of Georgetown University Medical Center as co-investigators.  The exciting results were recently published online in the journal Obesity.

In September 2009, we recruited 74 overweight and obese high school students in an under-resourced neighborhood in Washington, D.C. to participate in our “Wii Club” during the 2009-2010 school year. We assigned one-third of the participants to a “cooperative exergame” condition, one-third to a “competitive exergame” condition, and the final third to a control group who continued regular daily activities. The participants were encouraged to attend the Wii Club each school day during lunch time or after school. During their gaming sessions, they played a prescribed routine using the Nintendo Wii EA Sports Active exergame, which included cardio, sports, strength training, and yoga exercises. Those in the cooperative group worked together in pairs to earn points and burn calories, whereas those in the competitive group competed against a partner to earn the most points and burn the most calories.

Over the 20-week program, those in the cooperative exergame group lost about 3.6 pounds, whereas the control group gained about 1.9 pounds, resulting in a 5.5 pound different between the two groups. The competitive exergame group maintained their weight. Additionally, the cooperative players gained in self-efficacy towards exercise, a measure of confidence that they could complete their goals related to exercise. Both exergame groups increased in peer support during the intervention, more than the control group.

What’s really exciting is that this study is one of the first to demonstrate weight loss and improved psychosocial health from sustained exergame play. The social parameters of cooperating together to achieve a goal, combined with the fun gaming environment, were sufficient to motivate sedentary, overweight youth to achieve clinically meaningful weight loss. Given these promising findings, we’re excited to see how digital media and game play can help make physical activity and weight loss interventions more effective for young players. Research into the design and effectiveness of games – as was done in this study – is instrumental in helping to create games that can impact health in the future. Health Games Research evaluates questions of efficacy as well as principles of game design to determine not only if a game works, but why it works, to inform effective innovation in the next generation of games to improve health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.