With the stereotype of a gamer being that of someone hunched over on the couch, video games are often thought of as additional hurdles to overcome in the fight against obesity. In fact, researchers say that video games can be allies in public health and can even boost physical activity in children.

A study on the subject, which will be published in the Games and Health Journal, focused on the positive effect that video games can have on inner-city children. As researchers noted, many of these children are residents of neighborhoods where there are few safe areas to play or ride a bike outside. The study was conducted by researchers from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Human Services in public schools in Washington, DC. The 104 students were in third to eighth grade.

First, the students reported to their usual physical education class. Then the students were randomly assigned to three 20-minute sessions of gym class, Dance Dance Revolution, or Winds of Orbis: An Active Adventure. DDR is a game in which players dance to electronic music in increasingly complicated patterns, while Orbis tracks the role of a superhero that climbs, jumps, slides and goes through other active motions. During each of these sessions, researchers tracked the amount of energy the kids expended.

The study found that kids, especially girls, expended more energy playing Orbis than playing DDR. Researchers believe that is because Orbis allows users to set the pace, whereas DDR uses a pre-set pace. On average, children used more energy when they participated in their gym activities. However, for the younger children, in third through fifth grades, they also moved enough to meet the recommended guidelines for vigorous activity while playing video games. For older children, the situation was more complicated. Only the boys moved enough to meet intensive physical activity requirements, and only during gym class. Teenage girls, researchers found, barely moved in gym class or during the video game. This finding worried the researchers because when teens stop moving intensively, they can put on weight quickly and put themselves on track toward obesity.

This study was not the first time that researchers had studied the effects that video games could have on physical activity. The findings of previous studies have caused school districts in at least 10 states to incorporate video games into their gym classes. However, this is the first time that a study focused specifically on children of color.