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  • Lloyd Price

How effective is exergaming as preventative medicine?

Gone are the days when gamers were mostly found hunched in front of a screen with the curtains drawn. These days, purchasing an Xbox, Playstation or Nintendo Wii may mean exercising more than just your thumbs. With all the benefits of a personal trainer and technology to measure your progress in the comfort of your own home, it’s no wonder that more people are turning to games consoles to achieve their fitness goals. In addition to physical exercise, exergaming might also include mental exercise games online or apps for tablets and smartphones.

Far from having a detrimental impact on our overall health, studies have shown that the right type of games, played in moderation, can actually improve memory and cognitive ability.

Exergaming for Physical Health

Causing a storm in the early 2000s, popular arcade machine Dance Dance Revolution was the original exergame. The game quickly migrated from Japan to Europe and North America and from the arcade into homes with game consoles. Since then a wide selection of sporting, dance and activity games have helped redefine the nature of video gaming. Many activity games that use advanced motion sensors to detect movement are marketed at children, but have proved popular with the whole family. This applies particularly to console games such as Wii Sports that reproduce traditional sporting activities such as tennis, baseball, bowling, golf and boxing inside the living room. In fact, Wii Sports is currently the number one best-selling console video game of all time, with 83 million copies sold. Research scientist at the USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, Belinda Lange, claims that videos games show real promise when it comes to keeping fit, “they are becoming so common and accessible…they are of interest not only to the young folks but to the old folks, too.”

The objective of this type of sport or dance game, however, is to score points through skills and techniques that do not necessarily to burn much energy. For adults looking for a dedicated workout session, a range of console software has evolved from the classic 1980s aerobics video to help users maintain the correct form and posture, track fitness levels over time, provide inspiration to work harder and encourage further participation through competition with friends and the online community. A recent research project by the West German Centre for Diabetes and Health monitored 210 diabetes patients over a three-month period, with half of them using Wii Fit for 30 minutes each day. The exergame certainly had the desired effect as lower glucose levels and weight loss was recorded in the Wii Fit players.

How effective is exergaming?

Numerous studies have compared exergaming to real workouts at a gym or during outdoor sports. Unfortunately, exergames fail to live up to traditional workouts in terms of intensity. One study, directed by Bruce Bailey at Brigham University, Utah’s department of exercise science, compared the energy cost of six forms of exergaming. Bailey found that although exergaming increased activity levels, some exergames did not expend much more energy than walking on a treadmill at 3mph. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, many exergames do not utilize the player’s whole body but only require certain hand movements that may become subtler as the player improves. Other games, however, such as Dance Dance Revolution or its successor, Just Dance 4, require the user to progress to a certain stage of proficiency before the game becomes a vigorous workout.

The main advantages that exergaming has over other forms of exercise is firstly, convenience, and secondly entertainment. No need to schedule a specific time for exercise, trek to a specific place, buy special equipment, rearrange if the weather is unsuitable or find someone to partner up with. Even though exergames may not be quite as vigorous, you may end up playing them more frequently.

And of course, the more you enjoy exergames, the more you’ll play. Researchers at the University of North Carolina compared calories burned during ‘fun’ games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero with the Wii Fit aerobic routine. Of course, the Wii Fit routine proved more effective for burning calories, but according to the participants, about half as fun. The research concluded that people are more likely to exercise with a game they enjoy so burn more calories in the long run.

Exergaming for Mental Health

Games that help improve cognitive ability such as strategic thinking skills can also be divided into those that are designed for the purpose and those that are not. While many of us associate video-games with a loss of mental capacity, laziness, sleep deprivation and heightened aggression, there is evidence that video games played just for fun have some benefits too. In a study of 72 female participants, researchers at UCL and Queen Mary University found that after playing Starcraft ‘a strategy game in real time’ over a six to eight week period, cognitive flexibility actually increased. This is the ability to think about a number of tasks or concepts at the same time to achieve a goal. In contrast, volunteers who played the Sims, a game that does not require as much strategic thinking, did not show an increase in cognitive flexibility.

Some researchers have argued that only games created for a specific brain-boosting purpose can have a big impact, but numerous studies have shown that so long as the game is challenging, engaging and reward-based, games designed for entertainment can be just as beneficial. Many studies that examine the influence of video games on mental health have focused on people who can benefit the most from brain training exercise, such as the elderly. After playing a driving game called NeuroRacer for 12 hours, adults between the ages of 60 to 85 years were shown to have increased multitasking skills, a longer attention span and improved memory.

The potential for increased attention span is particularly beneficial for ADHD sufferers. Even children who have suffered brain damage as a result of cancer were found to have improved problem solving skills after playing mind games. These studies suggest that, given the right tools and motivation, the brain can recover and develop regardless of age or injury. As we face a world with an ageing population, brain training is becoming increasingly important. Games have also been shown to improve mental health in a number of surprising ways. Players may find their self-esteem has improved, the ability to make good decisions quickly, hand-eye coordination, reading skills and even vision. It is widely known that intense concentration while playing video games may desensitize players to the outside world. This is great news, however, for gamers with pain management issues.

Depending on the type of game, a player’s perspective could be completely altered. For example, cancer patients are encouraged to take their medication and stick to chemotherapy schedules by playing games such as Re-Mission, a game that rewards good behaviour and explains the science behind the process in an engaging way.

Clearly, games can have a real impact not only on our cognitive ability but also our outlook and moral behaviour. With so much choice in the gaming world, the opportunity to develop our physical and mental health is never-ending. It doesn’t matter if the games are designed for brain-training purposes or just for fun. But if possible, stick to strategy games that are faced-paced, constantly evolving, require quick decision making, intense concentration and pose new challenges that require you to think ‘outside the box’.

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