More About Whether Playing Video Games Is Exercise: The New Johns Hopkins University Study
By Doug Abrams
Constructive dialogue sometimes emerges when, close in time to one another, the media reports a pair of developments that offer contrasting perspectives. For youth sports parents, coaches, and community decision makers, such a pair appeared within a week in early May. The contrasting perspectives carry implications important for public health and for youth well-being.
The first development came from the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University. In the journal Health Affairs, the Center published a research study that detailed the harmful effects of childhood physical inactivity for the nation and for children themselves. Led by Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, the Center’s executive director, researchers found that “encouraging exercise and investing in physical activity such as school recess and youth sports leagues when kids are young pay big dividends as they grow up.”
Many of the dividends are financial. Under the headline “Overweight Kids Are Costing America Billions,” USA TODAY summarized key findings from the Johns Hopkins study: “[I]f half of America’s children age 8 through 11 exercised for 25 minutes, three times a week, there would be 340,000 fewer overweight and obese children, saving $21.9 billion in lifetime lost wages and medical bills. If all children followed the same plan, 1.2 million children would avoid becoming obese or overweight, enough to save $62.3 billion.”
For children themselves, regular physical exercise pays dividends by opening the door to healthier lives. The John’s Hopkins researchers cite reduced risks of obesity and associated chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer throughout adulthood.
Among other recommendations, the research team urges adults to “get your kids to play sports, even if they won’t become stars.” Dr. Lee and his colleague Dr. Marie Ferguson observe, however, that trends are moving in the wrong direction. Children today spend “too much time on smartphones, computers and television,” coupled with “declining participation in sports.”
Early May’s second development came barely a week after the Johns Hopkins research study appeared. The Chicago Tribune carried a thoughtful article by John Keilman under the headline, “Video Gaming: The Next High School Sport? Competitive ESports Gain Traction.” The story was about a video game competition among Chicago-area high schools. Keilman reported that as more and more high schools establish competitive e-sports teams based on fantasy professional leagues, the Illinois High School Association might sanction e-sports as an interscholastic sport sometime soon.
Keilman tested the limits of the video game competition’s analogies. “Did the competitors put in many hours of practice? Yes. Did they possess physical and mental gifts? Affirmative. Was teamwork a crucial ingredient for success? Absolutely.” But one element was missing — “perspiration.” “It’s hard to break a sweat when you’re sitting in a climate-controlled room moving little more than your fingers.”
The 2015 Research Reports
Last month’s Johns Hopkins study and Chicago Tribune article recall two reports published in June, 2015. In the first report, nearly a quarter of surveyed children between the ages of five and 16 told Britain’s Youth Sports Trust that they consider playing computer games with friends to be physical activity. Among seven- and eight-year-olds, the percentage was nearly a third.
The children said that they play sports or otherwise engage in exercise about 30 to 40 minutes a day (often in mandated school physical education programs), but that they spend nearly three hours a day playing with technology. The Trust predicted that today’s younger generation risks becoming “hostages to handheld devices.”
The second 2015 report, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, estimated that more than two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 (nearly 75% of men and nearly 67% of women) are now either overweight or obese. For the first time, more American adults are obese than overweight (67.6 million vs. 65.2 million). The percentages are the highest ever, substantially higher than ones reported 20 years earlier.
Meanwhile, National Public Radio estimated that more than a third of American children are overweight or obese, a troublesome number because (as former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said in 2001) “adolescents who are overweight are at high risk of becoming overweight or obese adults.”
JAMA researcher Lin Yang told American Health Line that technology has “changed the dynamic of our lifestyle.” As accelerating technological advances contribute to overweight and obesity, Dr. Yang sounded a “wake-up call” for action in “multiple sectors.”
“Increase Team Sport Participation Among All Students”
One of these sectors is community youth sports programs. In 2012, Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) featured a study that measured the positive effects on children’s health of various forms of physical exercise. These forms included active commuting to school (such as by walking or biking), regular participation in school physical education classes, and participation in team sports.
Dr. Keith M. Drake and his research team found that active commuting to school has some residual positive effect on a student’s body weight, but that participation in high school physical education classes does not. But there was more. The researchers found that “[t]eam sports participation had the strongest and most consistent inverse association with weight status.” The study estimates that overweight and obesity would “decrease by 11% and 26% respectively, if adolescents played on at least 2 sports teams per year.”
The researchers’ antidote? “Obesity prevention programs should consider strategies to increase team sport participation among all students.”
Good News and Bad News
Taken together, these recent studies demonstrate that inclusive community youth sports programs can enhance the public health by improving children’s lives. But recent accounts, appearing in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, suggest that youth sports enrollments appear to be declining in many parts of the nation.
On the positive side of the ledger, an estimated 35 million children — nearly half of all American youngsters — join at least one organized sports program each year. But on the negative side, about 70% of these youngsters quit playing organized sports by the time they turn 13, and nearly all quit by the time they turn 15. Indeed, the dropout rate begins accelerating as early as age 10.
A Role for Video Gaming?
In prior columns, I have written about how much work remains to be done before community youth sports systems become all that they can be. Also honing the national dialog about national health needs and youth well-being are such leading voices as my friends Rick Wolff, Bob Bigelow, Positive Coaching Alliance, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, and the MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety.
As work continues on the youth sports front, what role might exist for interscholastic video gaming? A generation or so ago, competitive television quiz shows such as “It’s Academic” and “The College Bowl” won loyal followings by encouraging excellence from high school and college students. The competitions inspired board games for home play, the closest analogues to what we call interactive media today. No one (in John Keilman’s words) ever “broke a sweat.” For participants and viewers alike, traditional interscholastic sports competition suited many students, but not all students.
In the 21st century, interscholastic sports-based video game competitions may similarly hold promise for students who do not want to play traditional organized sports. Similar to other school-based non-athletic extracurricular activities, these interscholastic competitions may also hold promise for students whose skills do not readily permit such play. Growing numbers of colleges and universities reportedly offer scholarships to accomplished competitive video gamers.
High schools can teach teamwork, dedication, dexterity, and similar skills through extracurricular activities that take place off the playing field. But video gaming, competitive or otherwise, provides no substitute for physical exercise. Whether through organized competitive sports or more informal individual exercise, encouraging lifestyles rich in physical activity remains a public health imperative for children and adolescents who also follow other pursuits.
Sources: Modeling the Economic and Health Impact of Increasing Children’s Physical Activity in the United States, Health Affairs, p. 902 (No. 5, 2017); Sean Rossman, Overweight Kids Are Costing America Billions, USA TODAY, May 1, 2007; Future Foundation, The Class of 2035: Promoting a Brighter and More Active Future For the Youth of Tomorrow; John Keilman Video Gaming: The Next High School Sport? Competitive Esports Gain Traction, Chicago Tribune, May 12, 2017; Bruce Y. Lee & Marie Ferguson, More Physical Activity Among Children Will Save America Billions, STAT (May 2, 2017); Hannah Richardson, BBC News, Youths Becoming Hostages to Handheld Devices, Says Charity (June 23, 2015); Lin Yang & Graham A. Colditz, Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity in the United States, 2007-2012, JAMA Internal Medicine, June 22, 2015; Am. Health Line, Study: Significant Uptick in Overweight, Obese U.S. Residents, June 23, 2015; U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity (2001); National Public Radio, Morning Edition, Childhood Obesity (July 1, 2015); Keith M. Drake et al., Influence of Sports, Physical Education, and Active Commuting to School on Adolescent Weight Status, Pediatrics, vol. 130, p. e296 (Aug. 2012); HealthDayNews, Increased Physical Activity For Children May Save Billions, Study Says (May 2, 2017); Mike Brennan, LTU Offers $600,000 in Scholarships to Video Gamers, https://mitechnews.com/steam/ltu-offers-600000-scholarships-video-gamers/ (May 23, 2017).