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The Forum > Article Comments > Childhood obesity: computer games to the rescue! > Comments

Childhood obesity: computer games to the rescue! : Comments

By Dennis Hemphill, published 4/2/2009

Rather than convincing children of the merits of exercise, why not promote fitness and health through the computer?

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This is an innovative idea which also leaves me feeling like a brain in a vat. I guess it is reminiscent of a dystopian science fiction view of the future with everyone hooked up to computers and no one actually experiencing the real world in and of itself. I guess it is the results that count though
Posted by Rosie Williams, Wednesday, 4 February 2009 9:52:31 AM
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After reading your article, I spent a couple of minutes scoffing. I teach in a school that can barely afford to photocopy assessment tasks for students, let alone invest in these high-tech facilities. But then it hit me: finances aside, it is actually a brilliant idea.

If we can't convince students to go outside and kick a ball around, why not bring the ball into the classroom? So to speak, that is. The digital realm allows us to turn physical activity into a wide range of learning experiences. Take the virtual field trip, for example. Rather than showing my students pictures of Victorian England, or making them watch a movie about Deep South racism, how much more engaging would it be if I could take them for a walk through those places? Perhaps individualised would be better - let them explore the world at their own pace, so the speed demons can run through the alleys and sewers while the slower ones could take in the views. It wouldn't work for every lesson, but it would be novel. Engage them with learning AND physical activity? Brilliant!

It might also carry into the real world. A lot of kids don't play sport because their base fitness level is too low - a source of shame and discomfort. They spend 5 hours a day sitting down and looking at a whiteboard, and another hour sitting and eating. If we could get them on their feet and make their education a more physical experience, then we would be helping them to raise that base fitness level.

It's not the most economically viable educational option, but it use one problem to solve another: it gets computer-dependent kids on their feet to do some real exercise. Maybe it is a vision of the future?
Posted by Otokonoko, Thursday, 5 February 2009 12:07:37 AM
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There are many reasons I disagree with Hemphill's proposition. I'm an ex-pat Australian professional working in a research-based childhood obesity clinic in Canada.
We know that children and teens are spending too much time in front of screens. Organised sports participation is high, but obesity rates have risen at the same time! Time spent outside has decreased- and reseach shows that if you put a child outside, they will be active. Playing computer games stimulates the sympathetic nervous system - or the flight-or-fight response- which releases stress hormones. On the flip side, being outside stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can relax our busy minds - especially if we are engaging with nature. Plus, if we want our children to understand how they interact with the environment, they need to be outside.
Also - technology costs ; nature is free (to generalise).
Encouraging screen time is not the answer, and I think its unethical, given the research. Active computer games should only be used as a replacement for inactivity (ie play Wii instead of a sitting game), or in extremely inclimate weather. The Exercise Specialists in our clinic report that things like Wii can be used to build confidence in a skill (say, tennis), but should only be used as a precurser to actually get out there and have some fun with other kids doing the real thing!
If you would like to read more on this subject, I suggest Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods" which reports on research and anecdote on this subject. Or look at - there's even a research section.
Thea Moss
Community Liaison Coordinator
Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health
Stollery Children's Hospital
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Posted by Thea Moss, Thursday, 5 February 2009 5:35:58 AM
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Hi Thea,

I think you and I are talking along the same lines. Where I see potential for application is in bringing activity to the usually static classroom. As an English teacher, I am painfully aware of the length of time students spend sitting down. Then they go to Maths, then to Geography, then to Science (though at least they sort of stand up [more like lean] when doing pracs) . . . Surely one more lesson of physical activity a week would be a good thing. But we have precious little curriculum time to give up for kids to go out and play sport. Lets face it, they're doing badly enough as it is. Thus the proposal has potential.

Of course, as a classroom practitioner, I am fully aware that it is often impractical. When my school bought a fistful of Smartboards, they seemed like such a great idea - but the implementation of such innovations is often gimmicky rather than subsantial.
Posted by Otokonoko, Thursday, 5 February 2009 9:58:06 PM
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Dear Rosie, Thea and Otokonoko,

Thanks for your constructive comments.

It is a sad fact that Physical Education (like the Arts) has a low priority in schools, in spite of the growing evidence that we are facing an obesity epidemic. It is a difficult enough task getting formal Physical Education/physical activity into the curriculum, let alone ensuring that its intensity, duration and frequency is sufficient for fat loss and improved aerobic fitness.

There is much to recommend outdoor education type activities for the fitness and learning benefits that can come with challenge activities or excursions in a natural setting. However, because of the risks and costs often associated with these activities, especially in terms of rising liability insurance costs, it seems to me that these activities are becoming more prohibitive for schools, especially State-funded ones. It might also be worth mentioning (as an expat Canadian) that severe weather conditions can at times impede active participation in outdoor settings for large groups of people.

My suggested program is based upon an integrated curriculum model, where physical activity can be integrated into traditional (and prioritised) subject areas such as English, Maths, Science and Geography. Of course, the physical activity demands of Wii type computer gaming would not be sufficient to produce the needed fat loss or improvements in aerobic capacity. Rather, a computer console such as GameBike (see URL below) or other types of ergometers could be adapted such that students literally pedal their way through lessons (e.g., virtual excursions into history, nature, books, architecture) delivered on a wide screen in front of the class. Exercise intensity, duration and frequency would have to be tailored to individual student fitness levels.

I expect that there would be enormous costs associated with developing and implementing such a computer-augmented learning/physical activity program in schools. However, I cannot imagine the costs to community health, wellbeing and work productivity if the current obesity epidemic (as a contributing factor to diabetes and heart disease) continues unabated. As mentioned in my original piece, a program of this scale will require some creative partnerships between government and industry.
Posted by DHemphill, Saturday, 7 February 2009 1:44:36 PM
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