Watching TV and playing video games has long been named as one of the culprits for our national obesity crisis. Our sedentary lifestyle habits certainly deserve some of the blame and there is no shortage of advice on how to wean us from our most beloved pastime.
The average American stays glued to the tube between four to six hours daily. Parents may complain about the almost addictive attitude their kids have towards video games, but, of course, adults surfing channels for hours on end are no different.
The Latest Generation of Video Games
Makes Players Get Off the Couch and Move
The fact that so many of us spend excessive amounts of time in front of the screen suggests that the experience is different from other activities that hold our attention to a far lesser degree.
Clinical studies have suggested that there are behavioral and neurological connections between the events we see on the screen and our ability to pay attention. “The kind of concentration that [especially] children bring to video games and television… is sustained with frequent intermittent rewards,” says Dr. Christopher Lucas, professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.
In other words, watching TV shows and playing video games may be so popular because they offer more frequent rewards than other activities. The neurological explanation is that the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in charge of pleasure experience. Our attention span is prolonged by the constant gratification we receive from suspenseful movies, funny sitcoms or challenging contest games. Watching or interacting with any of these might serve as a kind of dopamine-enhancing self-medication.
Encouraging people to push the switch-off button and do something else may be the obvious answer but perhaps not the only one. Trying to deny ourselves what gives us pleasure rarely works over time. Sometimes, indulging in what comes naturally can be a smarter solution.
For me, a recent visit to a computer store was a real eye-opener in this regard. The place was packed with kids and teenagers who were not there to buy laptops and tablets but to play – not video games where you just use your thumbs but athletic games that require full body action. Of course, I am talking about the highly popular Kinect game series that runs on the Xbox 360 player from Microsoft.
For all those who are new at this, like myself, here is a brief description of how it works: Kinect uses motion sensors that track the movements of every part of a person’s body –arms, legs, knees, head, hips and so on. The collected data allow a computer to produce a kind of “digital skeleton,” which is then fed into a video game environment. Players can view their actions in real time on screen in form of an avatar, an electronic image that corresponds to the players’ performance.
Some of the scenarios are highly imaginative. As a health care professional and fitness buff, I was immediately drawn to a game titled “Your Shape,” which promises calorie burn-off while having nothing but fun. It comes with a “personal trainer” and a dynamic exercise program for every health- and fitness level.
For the specific purpose of weight loss, Kinect offers another workout program called “The Biggest Loser,” which features trainer-guided exercise- and nutrition tips based on the popular TV show on NBC.
If that doesn’t sound especially appealing, there is a large selection of athletic sports to choose from, and also less strenuous activities, like dancing, golf or bowling.
Do I think that this is the solution to ending America’s notoriously sedentary lifestyle? No, of course not. But it can be a helpful tool.
There are countless reasons why both adults and kids spend too many hours on the couch every day. In many families there is not enough time and energy left for much else after a grueling workday and long commutes. Playing outside the house or on a nearby playground may not always be safe for kids who are on their own.
As they become more affordable, these new technologies may indeed provide some alternative outlet. Isn’t it better to do something for our health in the virtual world if it helps us to avoid getting sick in the real one?