Study shows certain video games, lifestyle changes, improve health in obese children

Activity-focused video games, in combination with fitness coaching and a step tracker, helped overweight children lose weight, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and increase overall physical activity, according to a new study by researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The study was published July 20 in the journal Pediatric Obesity.

A randomized clinical trial, GameSquad, tested the effectiveness of exergaming—video gaming that involves physical activity—to reduce children’s adiposity and improve cardiometabolic health.

The study, supported by the American Heart Association and two center grants from the National Institutes of Health, assigned 46 children ages 10 to 12 who were classified as overweight or obese to a 24-week exergaming or control condition. Half of the participants were girls and 57 percent were African American, according to the study, which is now available online. The study randomly assigned children to a "gaming" group of 23 families or a control group of 23 families.

Intervention participants were provided with an Xbox 360 gaming console with exergames (Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012, Just Dance 3, Disneyland Adventures, and Kinect Sports Season 2), a gameplay curriculum, and telehealth video chat sessions with a Pennington Biomedical fitness coach. They also received a "challenge book" to complete three one-hour gaming sessions each week and a Fitbit to track their steps each day.  

The control group members were not asked to make any changes in their behavior. These families received the exergames and gaming console at the end of the six-month study.

The primary outcome was body mass index (BMI) and secondary outcomes were fat mass by dual energy x‐ray absorptiometry and cardiometabolic health metrics. Twenty-two of the 23 families in the gaming group finished the six-month program. Children and parents in the gaming group completed 94 percent of the gaming sessions and attended 93 percent of the video-chat sessions.

The intervention group significantly reduced their BMI score. Compared with control, the intervention group improved systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, low‐density lipoprotein‐cholesterol and moderate‐to‐vigorous physical activity.

In Louisiana, one in every three children ages 10-17 is overweight or has obesity, and one in five has obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All are at increased risk for developing serious medical problems. Exergaming may be able to help, says Amanda Staiano, PhD, director of Pennington Biomedical's Pediatric Obesity and Health Behavior Laboratory and the study's primary investigator.

Kids who gain excessive weight and are not physically active can develop early signs of heart disease and diabetes, she said. They may also struggle every day with asthma, sleep apnea, and the other psychological and health challenges that excess weight and obesity can bring.

"Screens are everywhere in our lives, and they are here to stay,” said Staiano. “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."