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DDR and ‘exergames’ studied as a way to liberate children from couches

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Todd Miller thinks the only way to solve the childhood obesity crisis in this country is with a revolution. He’s just not sure it should be a Dance Dance Revolution.

DDR, a video game that requires stomping on arrows to keep up with on-screen choreography, has been touted as a way to win the war on fat — part of a genre of active “exergames” that will teach the next generation the joy of movement.

Although there’s no question that dancing beats chilling on the couch, Miller, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, wanted to see whether those arrows could really hit their target: students’ daily activity goals.

So over the 2010-2011 school year, Miller and his team visited the nearby Francis-Stevens Education Campus to compare the energy expenditure of D.C. public school students in third through eighth grades in three situations: participating in traditional physical education, keeping up with DDR and playing Winds of Orbis, a story-driven video game that incorporates running, punching and climbing.

The resulting study, published last month in the journal Games for Health, had positive news about the younger children, who managed to meet the criteria for vigorous-intensity activity with all three options. But the kids in sixth through eighth grades seriously fell behind. Only the boys doing P.E. measured up to the standard. Girls “barely met the criteria for moderate intensity” in any of the activities.

“Preteen girls are more concerned with how they look. They don’t want to mess up their makeup,” says Miller, who’s pessimistic about there being any way around that issue.

Compounding the problem is how easy it is to slack off with an exergame. “Some people really treat DDR like they’re dancing. They add in extraneous movements and freestyle,” Miller says. “Others play it like a true video game and go for a perfect attack.” Just hitting the pad might score points, but it doesn’t burn nearly as many calories.

Nevertheless, Miller, who is also a member of the board of directors of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, found some bright spots in his research when it came to exergaming — namely that the kids thought the options were fun, and not as intimidating as many sports.

“It’s not survival of the fittest,” Miller says. If DDR or Orbis or any video game can get kids moving outside of school, that’ll have a larger impact than a higher-intensity activity that they never want to do again. (And something like Orbis, which uses the plot to encourage play, could keep kids engrossed for hours at a time.)

So he’s curious to see what will happen at Turner Elementary School in Southeast Washington. At an event in the fall, the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance named it the first “champion school” for Let’s Move in School, a spinoff of first lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to spur physical activity among kids.

The event included races around the school track with Olympian Tyson Gay, jumping jacks on the playground and the presentation of Dance Dance Revolution: Classroom Edition.

Schools have been deploying the home game for nearly a decade, but manufacturer Konami has only recently introduced a version specifically for use in schools. Key features include the ability to have 48 players at once, nearly 400 songs to choose from, technology that allows teachers to track each student’s BMI and caloric burn rate, and nutrition messages (“Drink water!”).

“It’s all about accuracy and focus, along with more physical activity,” says Clara Baum, senior director of marketing for Konami, which donated the game to DCPS. Through a partnership with United Health Care, it has also arrived at schools in Florida, Georgia and Texas, and the California Endowment is helping pay for a rollout this week in Fresno.

But don’t ask how it’s been received at Turner so far: The version at the event was a prototype that had to be sent back. Health and physical education teacher Jeremy Keys is eagerly awaiting the real deal, which he thinks will be a hit with students, particularly because they’ll all be able to play together. His hope? “It’ll create some buzz in terms of being healthy and be a launch pad for families working out together.”

Whatever results Keys collects are going to be closely monitored by Heather Holaday, the health and physical education program manager for DCPS. Although DDR hasn’t had much of a presence in the city’s schools, she’s interested in how exergaming can add to students’ activity levels.

Every middle and high school in the city has the HOPSports Training System, which projects a huge variety of fitness videos on a screen set up in the gymnasium, often during P.E. warm-ups. Because it’s skill-based — providing instruction on martial arts, yoga, golf and more — it can offer broader expertise than any single teacher would be able to. And it frees up that teacher to give one-on-one help to students who need it.

Also, as with exergames, “everyone’s eyes are straight ahead, so kids don’t need to worry about how they’re looking,” Holaday says.

Because DDR isn’t really a lesson in the same way, she’s not sure where it fits into P.E., but she still thinks there’s room for it. Physical education is just one class on a schedule, but activity is something kids need all the time, so there could be big benefits in having the game as an option before or after school.

Especially for kids who live in neighborhoods where playing outside can be dangerous, an exergame could help hook them on other ways to stay active, she adds.

So maybe it’s more of an evolution than a revolution. But at least it’s a start.

@postmisfits on Twitter

Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.

Read past columns by Hallett and Lenny Bernstein at washingtonpost.com/wellness . There, you can subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Tuesday.

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