Can Children Get Exercise Through Video Games? (“Exergaming”?)

There are many different video game systems on the market and in our homes. One popular type of video games are active games played with Wii, Playstation 3, and Xbox Kinect, which all have hardware that detects a player’s physical movements. In 2009, four of the top 10 video games sold in the U.S. were active games.[1] In 2011, only three of the top 10 best sellers were appropriate for children (according to their Entertainment Software Rating Board ratings) and of those three, two were active games.  So, among the video games rated as appropriate for children, active games are still very popular.[2]

People playing active games stand up and move their bodies as if they were dancing or playing an actual sport. These “exergames” market themselves as a way to get off the couch, get active, and stay healthy. While the concept is exciting-and the games themselves can be a lot of fun-new research suggests that giving your family access to these games alone might not actually benefit their health.

Video Games and Physical Activity

A study by Tom Baranowski, a psychologist at Baylor College of Medicine, and his research team, was published in March 2012 in Pediatrics, a medical journal for pediatricians. This study found that buying an active game system, and putting it in your home, probably will not increase the overall physical activity of your children. This study’s participants were boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 12. Every child was given a Wii video game system to play with at home. Half of the students were asked to choose two out of five active games offered them, and half were asked to choose two out of five traditional video games, played while sitting down.

The children played as often or as little as they wanted to with no guidance from parents or researchers on how or when to play the games, or for how long. The amount of time spent playing video games was recorded by the hardware and in self-report diaries kept by the children’s families. After 12 weeks of logging this information and recording the children’s physical activity though motion detecting devices (accelerometers) worn throughout the day, the researchers found that there was no difference in activity level between the children who had the active games and the children who had the inactive games. This suggests that simply owning an “exergame” system is not enough to keep your family active.  Gamers can get a high level of physical activity out of active games, but in this study the children did not, despite having the games and accessories.

The researchers offered two possible explanations: either the children played the games at a low difficulty level or played at a high level and then opted out of additional activity for the rest of the day. The children who were given active games only engaged in an average of 25-28 minutes of moderate to high level physical activity per day-about the same amount of time per day as the children who were given inactive video games.[3]

This study is important because it shows that owning active video games is not enough to ensure that children get adequate exercise. There were, however, some flaws in the study design. First of all, the researchers did not know whether the 25-28 minutes of daily physical activity was from playing video games or from other activities. In their efforts to test active video games in a “naturalistic” home environment with as little interference from parents and researchers as possible, the study team could not enforce certain rules like having children turn on and off the Wii hardware when not in use. As a result, the researchers were unable to match accelerometer data with Wii play time records or even with the play time diaries. Another potential problem with the study design has to do with the way the games were chosen. The active games that the researchers selected might not have been the most appealing to children-even though they were “appropriate for children.” If the children had been allowed to choose from among the most kid-friendly active games on the market, perhaps that would have increased (or decreased) their physical activities. One of the active games, for instance, consisted of 20-minute workout sessions. A game that simulates a timed “workout” (as opposed to simulating a real-life game like basketball or hockey) not only might have been less appealing to children than other kinds of active games but it also may have encouraged kids to play it for a limited amount of time.

How Much Exercise Should Children Get Each Day?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, children and adolescents should get at least one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise every day. Neither group in the study-not the children with active games and not the children with inactive games-achieved the CDC’s recommended level of activity. Most daily physical activity should be aerobic-the kind that gets your heart pumping-and children should do this kind of activity at least three days per week. They should also do age-appropriate muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities. Muscle-strengthening activities include things like climbing on a jungle-gym or playing tug of war. Bone-strengthening activities include movements like running and jumping. Kids strengthen muscles and bones playing basketball, jumping rope, and even playing hopscotch. Any physical activity where the body makes repeated contact with the ground can be good for growing children and adolescents.[4]

Tips to Keep Your Kids Active

While owning active games may not be particularly beneficial to your child’s health, don’t pack up the game system just yet. An active game could be a good rainy day activity.[5] Exergaming is not as beneficial for kids as participating in actual sports or activities (and these games can be expensive), but if your children increase the difficulty level that will get their heart rates up.

When buying games for your family, remember that just because a game is rated for children, doesn’t mean a child will enjoy playing it. Some games recreate workouts, and require that the players do calisthenics and use workout accessories like resistance bands. This may be “suitable” for children but not appeal to them.  Some games help your kids recreate movements used in boxing and dancing. These games are fun for most kids, and in laboratory settings, playing them at a high level can increase activity at least as much as a brisk walk, which is considered moderate level physical activity.[6]

Here are other ways you can help your child stay active:

  • 1. Introduce your child to a variety of age-appropriate and fun physical activities.[7]
  • 2. Encourage your children’s interest in playing sports.
  • 3. Limit the time your children and your family spend in front of a TV or computer screen and encourage them to jump rope or exercise while watching (or at least during commercials).
  • 4. If you and your family enjoy “exergaming,” increase the difficulty level on your favorite games so that you can really get moving.
  • 5. Visit the CDC website for more information on how to keep your child healthy and active!

All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff. 

  1. The NPD Group, Inc. 2009 U.S. Video Game Industry and PC Game Software Retail Sales Reach $20.2 Billion.   Accessed March 15, 2012.
  2. Snider M. Video game sales have disappointing December and annual drop. USA Today. January 13, 2012. Accessed March 15, 2012.
  3. Baranowski T, Baranowski J, O’Connor TM, Abdelsamad D, et al. Impact of an Active Video Game on Healthy Children’s Physical Activity. Pediatrics. 2012; 129(3):636-642.
  4. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Youth Physical Activity Guidelines Toolkit. US Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: Chapter 3: Active Children and Adolescents. Accessed March 14, 2012.
  5. Daley, AJ. Can Exergaming Contribute to Improving Physical Activity Levels and Health Outcomes in Children? Pediatrics. 2009; 124(2):763-771.
  6. Graf DL, Pratt LV, Hester CN, Short, KR. Playing Active Video Games Increases Energy Expenditure in Children. Pediatrics. 2009; 124(2):534-540.
  7. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity for Everyone: Making Physical Activity Part of a Child’s Life. Accessed March 14, 2012.