Video games and their effect on the brain will always be a hotly debated topic. While some studies say they can desensitize players to real-world violence and cause cognitive delays, other studies suggest that certain games help develop better decision-making skills.
With obesity rates on the rise, there is a concern that gaming prevents players from getting enough exercise. Studies on players and the impact games can have are plentiful, but what there isn’t a lot of is agreement. Some say they help with focus and memory; others raise the possibility of addiction. The WHO has recently classified addiction to online games a mental health disorder.
Adding to the research is a new study from LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center. It’s a first in gaming research since it showed that along with fitness coaching and a wearable pedometer, children who were overweight were able to shed pounds, lower cholesterol levels and increase their activity.
The study was called the GameSquad and will be published in the journal Pediatric Obesity. Dr. Amanda Staiano, Ph.D., is the director of Pennington Biomedical's Pediatric Obesity and Health Behavior Laboratory and the study's primary investigator. She explained, "Kids who gain excessive weight and are not physically active can develop early signs of heart disease and diabetes. They may also struggle every day with asthma, sleep apnea, and the other psychological and health challenges that excess weight and obesity can bring."
The researchers at LSU cited the statistics on obesity in Louisiana and the numbers reported by the CDC are concerning. One in every three children (35.3 percent) aged 10-17 is overweight or has obesity, and one in five (21.1 percent) has obesity. The team wanted to see if some gaming could be developed that would mitigate some of the risks that go along with obesity and weight gain.
The GameSquad study included 46 children ages 10 to 12 who were either overweight or had obesity. Half were girls, and more than half were African-American. The cohort was split evenly down the middle with 23 children randomly assigned to a gaming group and the other 23 placed in a control group. The gaming group children received two gaming systems, an Xbox 360 and a Kinect, along with a fitness tracker bracelet and four different “exergames” which are games that involve standing, dancing or other physical activity beyond sitting down to play. They were also asked to record their activities each week in a “challenge book” so that their activity was part of the study data.
Parents were also actively involved, participating in video chats with the researchers and a fitness coach to monitor progress. Both groups were encouraged to spend at least 60 minutes a day getting some physical exercise. Video games played by the kids were all fitness related and the study period was six months. The control group children were not asked to change their behavior. At the end of the study, the children who spent time playing the games reduced their body mass index by about 3 percent while the control group increased their BMI by 1 percent. Gamers also lowered their cholesterol by 7 points, while the control group saw their levels increase by the same amount. Of course, the gaming group’s physical exercise increased, but the non-gamers showed a 22% decrease in activity.
Dr. Staiano explained, "Screens are everywhere in our lives, and they are here to stay. Kids spend half their waking hours in front of screens. I'm looking for ways to use those screens -- smartphones, computers, televisions, and tablets -- to incorporate more physical activity into kids' lives. When you don't intervene with kids who are overweight, often their health risk factors and health behaviors worsen over time. So, unfortunately, we weren't surprised to see that kids in the control group increased blood pressure and cholesterol and decreased physical activity over the six-month period." See the video below to learn more about the work.