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Simplifying Science

Is There an Indoor Fix to Childhood Obesity? Oui (or Rather Wii)

Last week, the New York Times ran a story called “Why Can’t She Walk To School?” The article looked at safety issues that plague parents, to the point that many cannot allow their child the rite-of-passage of walking a block or two alone to the bus stop or a friend’s house without the possibility of dire repercussions. Read More... The article only looked at getting somewhere — at the few minutes to and from. When you start to consider actually doing something, the issue gets magnified a hundred-fold and there are health repercussions. Many of today’s children don’t play outside like we used to: they don’t play tag until dusk; they don’t gather for impromptu games of basketball or touch football or hopscotch. Today’s children don’t get exercise outside and their bodies are growing as a result: they are growing wider.

For the same reason that many parents can’t rightfully let their children walk unsupervised to the bus stop, they cannot let them play in the neighbor’s front yard either. And so the kids sit inside. It’s not like they are doing anything bad—they do homework, they practice the piano, they email or chat with their friends online—but they are generally sitting and often snacking.

Sometimes parents are at home in the afternoon and they can supervise. In these families, the kids have the opportunity to get out and run around so long as it works for the adult in the house. (Translation, so long as there isn’t dinner to be prepared or another child to tend to or a stack of bills to be paid; and as long as the weather complies and there is space to play outside and so on.)

Other times, there isn’t an adult at home. Today there are millions of latchkey kids—estimates vary, but there are probably at least 8 million of them—who come home to an empty house, call their parents to let them know they are safe, prepare themselves a snack, and settle in for the night. For these children, there is no option to go outside and play unless they want to disobey the rules.

That parents don’t let their kids play outside has translated into an ever-growing epidemic of childhood obesity. It’s not the only reason, of course, but it is certainly a contributor. The problem is that there isn’t a great alternative. Stay inside and be safe, but gain weight; go outside and get fit, but risk abduction. This is one serious double-edged sword.

One solution is a tool that I decried for years: a video game. And when I tell parents to go out and get it, they laugh nervously or gasp or scowl. But Wii Fit is a video game like no other because it’s not passive.

Depending upon what game is played and what level of enthusiasm is put behind it, a Wii player may never break a sweat. But by the same token, when Wii Fit is on, kids (and adult players, too) are standing, moving, jumping, twisting, stretching, all without snacks in hand. They are moving, and that’s half the problem with staying safe inside—the safer you are often the fewer calories you burn.

Now let me set the record straight on a few fronts: first, I don’t have a financial stake in Wii. In fact, I don’t even own a Wii. And I am sure that there are other brands available that might get kids moving in the same way. Second, I am not endorsing other versions of screen time. I don’t think that watching TV or movies, playing passive video games, surfing the net or instant messaging for hours on end are the least bit healthful. And finally, I don’t pretend to be able to back up my observation with data. In general, I like to be able to site studies to prove my point; in this case, I don’t know of any studies, I only know what I have experienced in the office: heavy kids who cannot play outside get slimmer—and happier and more confident—when they have access to exercise in the form of a Wii.

Short of reverting back to the good old days when your mom had to call you in for dinner mid-dodge ball game, we have to find a solution to the increasing burden of childhood obesity. Eat less, of course. Eat healthier, certainly. But also exercise and move your body. If this must happen inside, maybe it should happen with the help of a really cool looking video game that your child will actually play.