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.