Wii for the Wee Ones

by Dr. Amanda E. Staiano

Hi parents!  Did you know Wii can get your family moving and in shape? Believe it or not, I research how video games can promote weight loss and activity in kids – we call them “exergames” because you have to EXERCISE to play the video game! Think Kinect, Move, Wii, Dance Dance Revolution.

It surprises people that exergames are considered “physical activity.” After all, we’re facing a huge obesity problem in this country – one of five preschoolers is overweight or obese, and that number is even higher for Hispanic and Black preschoolers. Two-thirds of adults and one-third of children/adolescents are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for bad heart health, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and even certain cancers. Video games are usually blamed for obesity and sedentary lifestyles, so how can they possibly be a “good” and “healthy” choice?

By requiring movement, exergames get players to burn calories and increase heart rate to levels of moderate intensity activity (Biddiss 2010; Graves 2008), which goes towards the 1 hour/day physical activity recommendation for kids age 6 and up (Siegel 2010). And for the wee ones, these games can contribute to the regular active play that is recommended for kids under 6. This physical activity can translate to weight loss for overweight/obese kids and weight maintenance for healthy weight kids – in fact, my dissertation showed that overweight/obese high school students lost about 5 pounds when they played the Wii Active game in a lunch-time and after-school program during the school year.

The best exergames for physical activity are those that use both the arms and the legs – that’s what will burn the most calories and get your kids moving the most (Graves 2008). And the best part is that the FUN of the game can distract your child from the “exercise” part! Even better news — when given a choice, kids choose physically active games over the sedentary versions (Sit 2010).

And the benefits don’t stop at physical health – exergames are an “equalizer” that allows family members at different ages and abilities to play a game together (Bryant 2010). Cooperation and group bonding can promote self-esteem, which motivates kids to become more physically active (Suhonen 2008). There’s even evidence that exergames can have cognitive benefits, like increased attention, visual-spatial skills, cognitive flexibility, and motor speed (Staiano, in press). For instance, playing an exergame can help preschoolers learn how to multi-task and begin to understand other people’s perspectives (Bryant 2010).

The fact is kids play video games – kids under the age of 5 already spend on average 1 hour each day playing console or hand-held video games (Vandewater 2007), and kids use media more and more as they get older (Rideout 2010). Video games are fun, challenging, and can help develop important skills like how to follow rules, how to track objects on a screen, and how to quickly respond to visual and auditory stimuli (Staiano 2011, in press). Adding physical activity to the game creates an even better package!

So consider adding some exergaming to your family’s schedule. Look for games designed just for preschoolers – like the Zippity Learning System designed by LeapFrog and Disney – or find games available on common platforms like Microsoft Kinect, Nintendo Wii, and Sony Move that your preschooler will enjoy. Make sure the games you pick are developmentally appropriate. And, just like with any physical activity, supervise your wee ones to make sure they use the equipment properly and don’t hurt themselves or others.

Special Instructions for Preschool Exergamers:

  • If the exergame uses a sensor bar, place it low enough (like under the TV) to read the preschoolers’ movements. This is especially important if the preschooler plays with taller siblings or parents.
  • If the exergame uses a handheld remote, make sure your preschooler’s hands and fingers are large enough to reach the buttons (such as pressing “A” and “B” buttons on the WiiMote). If your child doesn’t yet have the coordination to work the remote, use this as a teaching opportunity to develop motor skills!
  • Remember that the complex, multi-step procedures that come easy to an adult is not so easy for a preschooler (think of all the steps involved in Wii bowling). So be patient in teaching your child how to create the motions needed for game play. And you may want to try out Kinect which doesn’t require a remote at all, or stick with some simpler games like Wii Tennis, Baseball, and Boxing that don’t require as many button presses or simultaneous actions.

Some physical activity tips from the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines:

Why exercise? Physical activity helps you maintain a healthy weight and prevent excess weight gain. This protects you (and your child) from developing type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancers, high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, sleep apnea, asthma, reproductive health complications, and many other serious health consequences (CDC 2010).

Why limit screen time? Screen time, especially watching tv, is linked to overweight risk in preschoolers (Dennison 2002, Spear 2007). This doesn’t mean that if little Johnny or Suzie watches TV or plays video games they will automatically be overweight. But… if your child is sitting on the couch for hours on end instead of being physically active… and if your child has unlimited access to potato chips and candy bars or other unhealthy foods while watching screen media… then you’ve created an “obesogenic,” or obesity-promoting, environment that will make it harder and harder for your child to have a healthy weight.

So… how much screen time should kids get? It’s recommended kids and adolescents spend no more than 1-2 hours each day watching tv, playing video games, or using the computer.

Does it matter if the parent is active or overweight/obese?

Yes!  You are your child’s number one role model. If you’re not physically active, you’re missing a great opportunity to demonstrate to your child the importance of having an active lifestyle. Also, statistics show that if a kid has an overweight or obese parent, they are 80% likely to be overweight or obese themselves. Adults should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. That’s just 2 ½ hours spread out over 7 days – totally achievable!

How much exercise should kids get?

Ages 2-5: Several bouts of active play each day

Over 6:  60 minutes or more of physical activity each day

Also — children should do muscle-strengthening activities (like climbing) at least 3 days a week and bone-strengthening activities (like jumping) at least 3 days a week.

It doesn’t have to happen all at once – physical activity can be broken down into shorter blocks of time, as long as kids get enough exercise to make them sweat. The activity should be FUN, developmentally appropriate, and offer variety – not just the same activities over and over again.

Where can I get more info on how to play exergames with my kids?

Wii Mommies is an online discussion forum started by Jenn Hethcoat, mommy blogger who shares her weekly healthy family recipes on her own site Super Jenn. Wii Mommies gets moms throughout the country to share their stories of how to use Wii games and other exergames to get their family up and moving.

What can I do in my community to promote physical activity?

  • Be a voice for physical activity in your child’s PTA, and talk to your child’s teachers, childcare providers, and P.E. coaches about how to make sure the P.E. and recess offered at school includes active play.
  • Chart your child’s weight and body mass index with his/her pediatrician. Some schools also provide regular monitoring of your child’s weight.
  • Support children’s programs that promote healthy nutrition and physical activity throughout the year, including during the summer.

Help!  My preschooler is overweight!  What do I do? The best advice is to talk to your child’s pediatrician to see if your child is overweight and the best steps to take. There is also plenty of valuable info and resources online (click here for one example).

About the Author:

Dr. Amanda E. Staiano is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Physical Activity and Obesity Epidemiology Lab at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She had the pleasure of working with Dr. Alexis Lauricella in the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, where Amanda earned her Ph.D. of psychology and master of public policy. Amanda researches how exergames affect children and adolescents’ physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive health. More recently, she studies how physical activity reduces the risk for premature mortality in adults, and how waist circumference can be an important indicator of health risks in children and adolescents. She received her B.S. in psychology at Louisiana State University.

Email Amanda at amandastaiano@gmail.com.

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Filed under Elementary School Age, Preschoolers

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