This is a question that has launched dozens of studies since the release of Nintendo’s Wii gaming system in late 2006, with the results now being debated in lofty academic journals. Most researchers agree that "exer-gaming" does burn significantly more calories than playing traditional video games, but that’s really not saying much. The real question is whether they burn enough calories to improve health and fitness outcomes’and whether encouraging kids to play these games inspires them to get outside and try the real thing, or simply keeps them hooked on video games.
In some respects, video-game sports are doing a good job of simulating the real thing’injuries, for example. The New England Journal of Medicine reported the first case of “Wiiitis" in 2007, a 29-year-old suffering from tendinitis in his shoulder after playing Wii tennis. Other injuries reported in the medical literature include head trauma in an 8-year-old girl whose brother accidentally hit her while swinging his controller, and, in 2010, the first "Wii fracture” in the foot of a 14-year-old who fell off her Wii Fit balance board.
But what about improving fitness levels? To compare the energy expenditure of different tasks, researchers use "metabolic equivalents of task" (mets). Sitting quietly on the sofa requires 1 met, while playing tennis for the same period of time typically requires about eight times as much energy, or 8 mets. A 2010 study of 51 students from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, which appeared in the American Journal of Health Behavior, found that a traditional video-game version of tennis‘Mario Power Tennis for the Nintendo GameCube’required 1.2 mets, barely more than doing nothing at all. Wii Sports tennis, on the other hand, burned a respectable 5.4 mets on average. These results are fairly consistent with earlier studies, given that’just like real sports’the energy you burn depends on how vigorously you play. For example, a small 2007 study of 11 subjects found a more modest expenditure of 2.5 mets for Wii tennis. Another study, published in Obesity in 2009, found that active video games like Dance Dance Revolution and even Wii bowling are comparable to moderate-intensity walking.
So far, only three short-term studies lasting between 6 and 12 weeks have tried to address the crucial question of whether active video games can actually lead to improved health in children.
According to a 2009 review in the journal Pediatrics, none of these found any significant effects on outcomes such as bodymass index (bmi), though such changes would generally take longer than the scope of the studies to show up anyway.
On the other hand, three-quarters of young North Americans spend more than 10 hours a week sitting in front of various screens, and studies have found that they’re very unwilling to relinquish that time. With that in mind, even activities that mimic a casual stroll are better than nothing. Scott Leatherdale, the lead author of the Waterloo study, calculates that males who play an hour a day of active video games would burn an extra 483 calories per week’the equivalent of 7.2 pounds of fat per year. "The basic message is that if kids are going to play video games, parents should at least try to get their kids playing games that involve being physically active," he says. "That being said, video games should not replace actual physical activity."
Excerpted from Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? by Alex Hutchinson Copyright © 2011 by Alex Hutchinson. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.