If you teased a friend about getting a Nintendo Wii™ Fit or a Sony PlayStation®2 EyeToy™ this past holiday season, you may need to eat your words—or ask to have a turn at the electronic health gaming phenomenon. With worldwide sales of more than $6 billion, electronic health games pair digital interactive technology with physical activity and cognitive function to move bodies and minds and thus achieve better health.
Health-oriented games for young and old alike are helping people manage illnesses and chronic conditions, make healthy food choices, reduce stress, and improve brain function. A distant cousin to kids’ video games, e-games provide motivation and fun to help people change their behavior.
Gaming in health has been around more than 30 years. To develop appealing and engaging games, artists and scientists blend their knowledge with principles of learning and health-behavior change. Health Games Research, a national program based at the University of California at Santa Barbara, funds research to advance digital games and game technologies designed to improve health in areas such as smoking cessation, chemotherapy adherence, exercise for obese teens, and reducing the risk of falls in Parkinson’s patients.
Fitness for the body
“Exergames” focus on increasing physical activity in a way that’s fun. The gold standard for interactive exercise e-games is Dance Dance Revolution (known as DDR), created more than 10 years ago. You can find such “dance-pad”–based video games in fitness studios, arcades, workplace fitness programs, college campuses, and K-12 schools. Children and adults alike enjoy shedding their current skin and dancing like stars or performing like boxing aces, tennis pros, or martial arts masters.
These games help children do more than just manage their weight and increase their exercise motivation. They can improve their academic performance, self-esteem, sensory awareness, physical and eye-hand coordination, and reading skills. Adult users benefit, too, reporting increased more energy, reduced stress and absenteeism, and greater concentration, memory, creativity, productivity, and self-esteem.
Are exergames just a fad? Corporations and government agencies don’t think so. Fueled by innovation and continuous reinvention, health gaming has staying power. Major insurance companies, such as Cigna and Humana, are supporting gaming as a way to improve and sustain health long term. Last October, the United Kingdom’s Department of Health endorsed Wii Fit Plus as part of its National Health Service Change4Life program to encourage everyone to be active and eat healthy foods.
Fitness for the brain
For many, one of the greatest fears is “losing our marbles.” Staying mentally active by playing interactive games may be one way to prevent cognitive decline. Numerous studies suggest that mental fitness can build cognitive reserves. The brain can create new neural pathways that function as a reserve tank when needed. The five areas of brain function we most want to protect are memory, attention and concentration, language skills, visual and spatial relationships, and executive functions (logic, reasoning, organization, scheduling, and impulse control). You can learn more about free “brain fitness” games using any basic Internet search.
Physical exercise and good nutrition also are thought to aid proper brain function, develop new neural pathways, and repair damaged cells. Sources of practical advice include such campaigns as Maintain your Brain® (www.alz.orgwe_can_help_brain_health_maintain_your_brain.asp) and Brain Health (www.aarp.org/health/healthyliving/brain_health). These programs recommend people keep strong social connections and engage in physical and mental activities to maintain a healthy brain.
On the horizon—games at work?
Games may be the educational medium of the future. Any learning content can be customized into a game that’s effective and fun for adult learners. Check out Gaming4Health.com, a free health e-gaming portal and online community that encourages health and fitness through increased cognition, healthy eating, exergames, stress reduction, and condition management.
For your health’s sake, you might want to get out there (perhaps while no one is watching) and shake your booty, exercise your brain—and have some fun.
Pamela F. Cipriano, PhD, RN, FAAN, NEA-BC