Study: Active Video Gaming Can Help Children Increase Physical Activity and Reduce Weight

March 03, 2014
  • Incorporating "active gaming" into pediatric weight-management program shows promise as an effective strategy to help increase physical activity  
  • Research results published by the journal JAMA Pediatrics
  • JOIN for ME, a weight-management program developed by UnitedHealth Group, has been proven to help overweight and obese children eat healthier and exercise more

Research published online today by the scientific journal JAMA Pediatrics demonstrates that including active video gaming in a 16-week pediatric obesity intervention program resulted in a clinically significant increase in physical activity and a reduction in excess weight among overweight and obese children. The research will be published in the May issue of the journal.

The study shows how incorporating "active gaming" into a pediatric obesity treatment program can be effective in promoting physical activity and addresses the childhood obesity epidemic that is taking a toll on children's health and the nation's resources.

All study participants, ages eight to 12, enrolled in JOIN for ME®, a family-based pediatric weight-management program developed by UnitedHealth Group. This program demonstrated promising results in a study published in Pediatrics (October 2012) and an 18-month follow-up study published in Pediatric Obesity (August 2013).

Half of the participants completed the 16-week program as usual; the other half also received Xbox 360 consoles with Kinect from Microsoft Corp., one active video game at their first session and a second game halfway through the program. All participants explored the benefits of physical activity and set physical-activity goals as part of JOIN for ME. The researchers provided consistent instructions about physical activity to both study groups, meaning the participants who received the Xbox 360 consoles with Kinect did not receive additional instructions on how to use the games or how long to play each day.

Study Results

The introduction of an active gaming component to JOIN for ME resulted in a significant increase of 7.5 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous activity, with one-third of that time devoted to vigorous physical activity, compared with the participants who completed JOIN for ME without the gaming component.

All children, regardless of study group, exhibited significant and clinically meaningful reductions in weight, consistent with the original JOIN for ME research. However, providing participants with an active gaming console and a game resulted in a significantly greater (more than 100 percent) reduction in relative weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) percentile, more than doubling the impact of the weight management program and demonstrating that incorporating active video gaming into an evidence-based pediatric weight-management program had positive effects on both physical activity and weight. Although screen time is often considered a contributor to childhood obesity, this study demonstrates that active gaming can be considered "constructive screen time" that can benefit children.

"Given the popularity of video games, it is valuable to see how active video games in an evidence-based weight-management program can help make a positive impact on our national childhood obesity crisis," said Deneen Vojta, M.D., a physician executive at UnitedHealth Group and one of the study's principal investigators. "The results suggest that using active gaming in a weight treatment program may be an effective strategy to promote physical activity and healthy weight among overweight and obese youth."

"Considering that study participants were given no instructions related to gameplay suggests that if they were given specific goals for active gaming, the results could be even more impressive," said Stewart Trost, Ph.D., Center for Research on Exercise, Physical Activity and Health at the University of Queensland and lead author of the JAMA Pediatrics article.

Ravyn Hill, a 12-year-old who participated in the Xbox study, lost nearly eight pounds over the four-month program. She also grew nearly an inch and a half, giving the weight loss more of an impact, and reduced her BMI from the 97th to the 90th percentile. She and her father Brian Hill were impressed with the approach the JOIN for ME program uses to encourage children to eat moderate portions of healthy foods and indicated that the Xbox 360 console with Kinect helped Ravyn be more active.

"I used to think exercise was boring," she said, "but when I play games with the Xbox, I don't think of it as exercise and I still get the benefits to my health. The Xbox Kinect helped me be more active, particularly during the winter when it can be harder to be outside. This program really worked for me." To learn more about Ravyn's story, click here.

"We are pleased to partner with UnitedHealth Group and the academic medical community to use the Xbox 360 platform to make physical activity more fun, more natural, and more social for children, especially those with sedentary lifestyles," said Dennis Schmuland, M.D., F.A.A.F.P., chief health strategy officer, U.S. Health & Life Sciences at Microsoft. "It is very promising to see that active gaming can help children become more physically active and reduce childhood obesity."

About one-third of all American children are obese or overweight, leading to increased health risks, higher health care costs and decreased parental productivity at work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States – nearly triple the rate from just 30 years ago.

"Adding a gaming component to JOIN for ME has made the program even more effective as a low-cost, scalable childhood obesity intervention that can be delivered to a much larger group of families than traditional, hospital-based interventions, which are often costly and hard to access," said Dr. Vojta. "We look forward to partnering with other organizations to help find creative approaches to address this public health crisis."

About UnitedHealth Group
UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) is a diversified health and well-being company dedicated to helping people live healthier lives and making health care work better. With headquarters in Minnetonka, Minn., UnitedHealth Group offers a broad spectrum of products and services through two distinct platforms: UnitedHealthcare, which provides health care coverage and benefits services; and Optum, which provides information and technology-enabled health services. Through its businesses, UnitedHealth Group serves more than 85 million people worldwide. For more information, visit UnitedHealth Group at

Be the First to Know

Stay up-to-the-minute on the latest headlines from UnitedHealth Group.