Can video games have the potential to help overweight children increase physical activity and improve their health? The benefits of exergames were demonstrated in a trial conducted by Louisiana State University (LSU).

The paper titled "Home-based exergaming among children with overweight and obesity: a randomized clinical trial" was published in the journal Pediatric Obesity on July 20.

"Screens are everywhere in our lives, and they are here to stay. Kids spend half their waking hours in front of screens," said lead researcher Dr. Amanda Staiano from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at LSU.

"I'm looking for ways to use those screens — smartphones, computers, televisions, and tablets — to incorporate more physical activity into kids' lives."

The new study recruited 46 children who aged 10 to 12 and were overweight or obese. Around half the participants were girls while more than half were African-American. The children were randomly assigned to either a control group of 23 families or a "gaming" group of 23 families.

Children from the gaming group were given an Xbox 360, Kinect and four active-play video games, also known as exergames. These games use a form of technology that tracks body movement or reaction.

The children from the gaming group were encouraged to play them with their family or friends over the study period of six months. Meanwhile, those from the control group were not advised to make any changes to their usual routine and behaviors.

After six months, a 3 percent reduction in body mass index was observed in the gaming group while the control group saw a 1 percent increase. In addition, the former also increased their physical activity by 10 percent while the latter decreased their physical activity by 22 percent.

Children from the gaming group experienced a decrease in cholesterol levels by 7 percentiles while their counterparts saw an increase in 7 percentiles, which left them in the borderline category for high cholesterol.

According to reports, obesity rates among children have been on the rise in recent years in the United States. What is particularly concerning about early childhood obesity is the risk of the unhealthy body weight continuing into adulthood. 

"When you don't intervene with kids who are overweight, often their health risk factors and health behaviors worsen over time," Dr. Staiano said.

She added children who gain excessive weight can develop early signs of heart disease and diabetes, sometimes even struggle with problems like asthma or sleep apnea.

The findings suggested exergames, preferably combined with monitoring by a fitness coach, can be an effective intervention to tackle childhood obesity.

While they are certainly better than remaining sedentary, experts still do not encourage replacing traditional physical activities with exergames. Exposure to the outdoors and developing accuracy in sports are some of the benefits that cannot be offered by gaming.