Active Video Games Can Help Your Family Get Fit (For Real)

Filed under: Video Games

Active video games can get you and your family into shape while having fun! Credit: AP

I've always believed in the importance of play in kids' lives. I'm talking real play -- blocks, dolls, rubber balls. So when Wii Sports came into our lives, I insisted that my son learn to play real tennis before he could play the virtual version.

My high-minded ideals lasted just long enough for our family to buy $300 worth of equipment, spend an entirely frustrating hour on the court, and leave in angry silence. So I caved. We fired up Wii Sports -- and I got a shock along with my tennis lesson. Wii Tennis was fun. It was uplifting. It provided friendly competition and a way to learn good sportsmanship. And what surprised me the most was it actually gave us enough practice to give our real rackets a second -- and third, and fourth -- try.

What the Experts Say

According to a recent survey conducted by the American Heart Association about the motivating effects of active video games, 58 percent of people who play active-play games have begun a new real-life fitness activity like walking, tennis, or jogging since they started playing the games.

This study flies in the face of what I'd always assumed: that if my kid played virtual sports games, he'd never throw a ball again. But it's not an either/or choice.

In fact, according to Barry A. Franklin, Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Exercise Laboratories at William Beaumont Hospital in Michigan (and an American Heart Association volunteer), active games can help people build confidence, skills, and fitness. "We are finding that they often act as a gateway to other forms of physical activity. So as people get up off the couch to play Wii games, they're likely to stay up and do more -- like walking, jogging, or playing tennis."

And more and more games are blurring the lines between virtual and real. Nintendo's new version of Nintendogs + Cats works with the handheld device's built-in pedometer. It counts your steps (in the real world) and rewards you for them during your in-game dog walks.

Balancing Act

Maybe these games aren't trying to replace anything. Maybe I can strike a good balance between the two. And maybe, if I'm able to choose the right kinds of games, I can actually extend the play value to the real world -- and vice versa.

For guidance, I turned to Elizabeth Cushing, Chief Strategy Officer of Playworks, an Oakland, CA-based nonprofit that promotes good old-fashioned playground games. "Active-play video games can play a supporting role in recreating a culture of play," she says.

But you have to know what to look for. "The best video games strengthen and reinforce the skills that kids gain from sports and playground games -- like conflict resolution and cooperation -- age-appropriately."

So when the weather outside is frightful or you just want to burn off some energy, consider active-play games as a supplement to your kids' other activities. See more Active Gaming Tips.

Video Games that Play Like Playground Games

Here are Playworks' tips on the qualities to look for, plus our game recommendations.

Find active games you can play together. Kids love to play with adults.
Consider: Wii Sports Resort, Kinect Adventures, Kinect Sports, Dance Central, Sports Champions, Body and Brain Connection.

Look for games in which you need to resolve a conflict. Use negotiation skills and strategy -- not violence -- in order to advance in the game.
Consider: Active Life Explorer, Active Life Outdoor Challenge.

Find games that allow your child to get back in the game even if he or she is "out" for a while. It's important for kids to learn the patience to wait for their turn -- and to have the resilience to roll with the rules of the game.
Consider: Nickelodeon Fit, Wii Sports Resort, Kinect Adventures, DanceDanceRevolution, Wii Fit Plus.

Look for games that can be translated to outdoor or off-line cooperative play with other kids. The real-world social interaction kids learn from really playing against other kids is key to developing healthy social skills.
Consider: Walk It Out!, All Star Cheer Squad, Pokemon Heart Gold and Soul Silver (with Pokewalker pedometer), Wii Fit Plus, EA Sports Active, We Ski, Gold's Gym Cardio Workout.

Written by Caroline Knorr

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Get more information for parents on media and technology by checking out Common Sense Media.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.