Go play outside! Growing up, many of us heard this directive
coming from our parents. Today, kids are more apt to be playing inside
on some sort of tech device. They’re parked in front of a television
or computer engrossed in an exciting video game, or sitting and tapping
away at mobile apps. It’s doubtful many parents try to keep children and
teens active by calling out, “Go play on your laptop!” But should they?
Times change. Could it be that the “Go play outside” model of previous
generations has run its course? Inactivity and obesity are real problems
among today’s youth—a group that is quite technologically literate (when
they have access to tech devices). Anyone who’s seen a 10-year-old with
a tablet knows kids can work their way around such gadgets quite
Opinions vary on how far to integrate technology into kids’ fitness, if
at all. This article is an exploration: How might technology help, not
hinder, the fitness industry’s efforts to encourage kids to
move—especially kids who don’t easily identify as “sporty” types. Are
there feasible approaches to meeting children and adolescents where they
are with screen time, instead of eschewing it? These ideas are explored below.
Technology as a Conduit
to Get Kids More Active
A bank of studies suggests that active video games (AVG) in particular
may encourage children and teens to exercise using a medium that’s both
familiar and interesting to them (Gao et al. 2015; Lamboglia et al.
2013; Martin, Ameluxen-Coleman & Heinrichs 2015; Smallwood et al. 2012).
Kids usually play AVG, also called exergaming, on a television hooked up
to a gaming system, but there are also mobile apps designed to turn
exercise into a game, with themes that are likely to appeal to kids,
such as superheroes, zombies or treasure hunts. Many fitness apps and
devices play up gamification, where users earn points and/or
virtual badges or rewards as a way to make the activity more enjoyable
“Active video games are appealing to children and adolescents, and have
been shown to increase intrinsic motivation toward fitness,” says
Martin. “Smartphone apps have characteristics that increase fun and
enjoyment, reinforce progress, and provide support through social media
platforms. By utilizing ‘screen-based’ technology and smartphone apps,
educators can better assist youth to meet national physical activity
guidelines and [to] decrease the overall number of hours [spent in]
In a recent meta-analysis (i.e., a process of analyzing results from
multiple experiments on a similar topic), researchers looked at 512
previously published studies and 35 articles and determined that
compared with sedentary behaviors, “AVGs had a large effect on health
outcomes.” In the study, published in Obesity Reviews, researchers
determined that “AVGs can be a good alternative for sedentary behaviour
and addition to traditional physical activity and sports in
children/adolescents” (Gao et al. 2015).
Another review, published in Journal of Obesity looked at AVG
and childhood obesity. Overall, playing active video games was found to
increase physical activity levels, energy expenditure, maximal oxygen
uptake and heart rate. Results also indicated that waist circumference
and sedentary screen time decreased. “Thus,” concluded researchers,
“exergaming may be considered a highly relevant strategic tool for the
adoption of an active and healthy lifestyle and may be useful in the
fight against childhood obesity” (Lamboglia et al. 2013).
A study of 322 overweight and obese children, aged 10–14, found that
participants in a 6-month AVG intervention saw an improvement in body
composition, spent more time playing active video games and spent less
time playing nonactive video games, compared with a control group. While
kids in the AVG group showed no change in body mass index at the end of
the study compared with baseline (i.e., measurements taken at the start
of the study), BMI increased in the nonactive control group
(Maddison et al. 2011).
Researchers in another study from the United Kingdom compared the
effects of traditional, sedentary video games against active ones with a
dance or sports boxing component. The sample included 18 boys and girls,
aged 11–15. Energy expenditure was up to 194% higher when they played
AVG than it was during sedentary video games. The researchers concluded
that regularly playing AVG “could prove to be an effective means for
increasing physical activity and energy expenditure in children”
(Smallwood et al. 2012).
“Youth gravitate toward technology,” says Martin. “I do not believe it
is effective to ignore the possibilities in which it can be used to
facilitate movement. Research has shown that AVGs can provide children
with the opportunity to practice skills such as manual and body
coordination, functional mobility, and the ability to follow movement
cues and direction, as well as increase physical competence.”
Martin’s own research is concerned with using technology to help
increase physical activity and enhance health among kids. In her 2015
article “Innovative Ways to Use Modern Technology to Enhance, Rather
Than Hinder, Physical Activity Among Youth,” Martin offers best
practices to educators for integrating activity-based video games and
mobile apps into curricula. The sidebar “Tools for Trying Fit Tech With
Kids” is adapted from a few of her recommendations.
Of course, all this active video gaming still happens indoors—forget
about fresh air—where kids are perhaps not engaging much in team play,
unstructured play or social play. However, not all kids feel comfortable
with traditional models of exercise, such as team sports, or even
physical play in front of peers who might tease or ridicule them.
To read more about the pros and cons of integrating technology into children’s exercise programs, please see “Fit Tech for Kids: Boon or Bust?” in the online IDEA Library or in the January 2016 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.