While physical activity is vital for everyone's health, children are often most drawn to electronic and technological forms of fun. This often leads to hours spent sitting in front of the television, computer or both, playing computer or video games for hours on end. A major global concern, as video games and technology use become more prevalent, is whether a sedentary lifestyle is impacting children's health and whether removal of access to video games and technology can make a difference.

In a recent three-year study of 56 Australian children aged 10 to 12, children were refused access to either video or computer games for eight-week periods. Researchers then measured each child's moderate/vigorous physical activity (MVPA) to figure out how much physical activity they were getting as a result of the lack of electronics.

Before the children were banned from the electronic games, their active time was a mere 54 minutes while their sedentary time was 523 minutes, or nearly 8.5 hours, each day. Watching television appeared to take up much of their sedentary time, at 107 minutes each day. Video games were a close second, as children spent an average of 44 minutes each day playing them.

While the children were kept away from video games, their activity or lack thereof was measured by an accelerometer. This device was worn on the child's hip and measured when activity began and stopped. The children's active times increased an average of four minutes per day, while their sedentary time decreased an average of four minutes per day. Notably, on school days, which would arguably increase sedentary time, the lack of video games actually increased the children's active time after school by an average of three minutes each day. Similarly, on school days, their sedentary time decreased by an average of six minutes each day.

The children were also asked to keep a diary of how often they played video games and how often they played outdoors or with friends. Here, researchers found that if they were allowed to play games, they played an average of 34 minutes each day. However, the self-measured changes to active and sedentary times were astounding. It turns out that after video games were removed, the children were sedentary for 14 fewer minutes each day and active for 12 more minutes each day.

The replacement of sedentary activities with active ones is promising. In nearly all of the measurements, nearly as much time was spent in physical activity as the time sedentary activities lost after children were no longer allowed to play video games.

The results of this study are clear and somewhat controversial: removing sedentary video games improves physical activity. However, this removal could meet much resistance from children whose days are made by playing these games upon returning from school. It is also unrealistic to expect parents to do without computers, simply so that their children will not be encouraged to play games on the web. The researchers recommend the integration of active electronic games and consoles, such as the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect, to encourage physical activity that will ensure better health. "Parents can be advised that replacing sedentary electronic games with active electronic games is likely to have the same effect as removing all electronic games," the researchers said.

Source: Straker LM, Abbott RA, Smith AJ. To remove or to replace traditional electronic games? A crossover randomized controlled trial on the impact of removing or replacing home access to electronic games on physical activity and sedentary behavior in children aged 10-12 years. BMJ. 2013.