Exergaming and Children's Health

27 - 08 - 2012

Exergaming and Children's Health

Exergaming, or exercise gaming, is an ideal physical activity for school children. It prevents obesity, spine disease, and psychosocial disorders. Dr. Milivoj Jovancevic, a pediatrician, writes about exergaming – the concept of exercising by playing games. The article was originally published on the site of the Croatian interactive dance and fitness club Mrak Korak.

The concept of exergaming presents a successful combination of fun, music, physical activity and socialising. It is an excellent program that provides benefits in terms of advancing the overall psychomotor development and improving physical and mental health. At the same time, it has significant value in preventing disorders related to the aforementioned health components in children and young people.

A few words about the theoretical concepts that form the basis for these observations:

1. Brain development

From birth until the age of ten, the brain goes through some amazingly complex and fast changes. The final look and function of the brain depend on heritage and the biological potential on the one hand, and on outside stimuli on the other. Recurring events and experiences leave permanent changes on brain structure. Inactivity and paucity of stimuli reduce the degree to which biological potential is fully used. Learning, the stimuli that come through the senses, and movement repetition each improve the function of all parts of the brain. However, even after the age of ten, the brain needs stimuli to preserve the acquired abilities and to obtain new ones. The older we get, the more time and repetition we need to acquire new skills.

With its melody and rhythm, music has a significant effect on these processes. We are introduced to it even before we are born, even before our ear organs develop. In the womb, the baby receives music through the senses on its skin. Upon birth, the infant listens to the mother's voice, which also has a melody. Lullabies, children's rhymes, and early exposure to music undoubtedly have a positive effect on speech development and on the child's emotional development.

2. Physical activity

Living conditions have changed significantly in the last hundred years or so. In this period, there has been a number of factors that caused us to move less. Excessive urbanisation and a lack of playgrounds, the rise of the living standard that increased the use of various means of transport, and intake of excess calories, as well as the volume and concept of the school curriculum, which takes away a significant amount of time from leisure activities, games and sports, certainly belong to the group of the most significant ones. Unfortunately, only a third of Croatian school children meet the minimum of physical activity recommended by the World Health Organisation, which advises at least an hour a day. Other than supporting the proper development of the musculoskeletal system, physical activity keeps it healthy and functioning throughout one's entire life.

Movements do not only require a certain volume and strength, but they also need to be coordinated. Exercise helps with coordination, at first through a game, and later through sports and recreation. This segment of physical activity is in a close mutual (interactive – two-way) connection with brain function.

Physical activity takes energy. In today's society, especially in urban environments, excessive intake of calories is one of the most important problems of public health. Obesity is spreading exponentially and Croatia is one of the countries with a high risk and frequency of obesity. Latest research shows that 16% of the children of the pre-school age have an increased body mass and 5% already fall into the overweight category. The importance of obesity in matters of public health is based on the following facts: 1) 30% of overweight preschoolers will be overweight for the rest of their life, 2) 60% of obese adolescents stay obese for the rest of their life, 3) 1/3 of the causes of death in Croatia are a direct consequence of obesity, 4) 2/3 of the causes of death in Croatia are either directly or indirectly caused by obesity. Obesity is hazardous because it leads to inactivity, to negation and neglect of the physical, which in turn results in even bigger weight gain. An entire series of hormonal and metabolic changes occur in the body which increase the need for food, and this is one of the reasons why the success rate in curing obesity in children has been relatively poor (about 10%) as well as in adults (about 20%). It is therefore important beyond measure to act preventatively by promoting healthy lifestyles. Parents should lead by example to inspire their children to adopt these lifestyles.

3. Prevention of respiratory system infections

At rest, the air flow through the respiratory tracts is 2-3 times weaker than during physical activity, the breathing is shallow, and a great portion of the respiratory tract does not get enough air. Air flow clears the respiratory tract mucosa, and this prevents bacteria, viruses and fungi from multiplying that could otherwise cause an infection. Physical activity and fast breathing strengthen the muscles involved in breathing and consequently the breathing becomes stronger and more effective. It is also a well known fact that moderate physical activity boosts the immune system, which is therefore weaker in persons who are not very active.

4. Emotional and social aspects

The spirit and the body are an inseparable whole and each disturbance in one of them strongly and directly affects the health of the other one. Physical activity by itself releases pleasure hormones in the brain. The feeling of agility, of being slim and socially acceptable benefits good emotional health. Poorer agility and obesity have the opposite effect and create an imbalance between the emotional needs and the body. A number of studies have shown fewer accomplishments and generally a lesser rate of success in life in people who are not very physically active and are overweight. In childhood and adolescence, the aforementioned disorders frequently cause profound traumas and lead to isolation and/or into social pathology (violence, addiction, and the like). Building awareness of the importance of the balance between the spiritual and the physical is exceptionally important in the period of coming of age. In times when children are exposed to influence of different media (TV, Internet, video games) their asocial tendencies become a growing problem – the lack of socializing with others. In interaction with others, a child can gain a real insight into his or her own abilities – at what things he/she is better or worse than others and how to compensate. It is important to stress that this process must be supervised by experts who will use work methodology and psychological support to make sure that each child who takes part in the program feels good and improves his or her psychophysical skills.

Experiences with the Exergaming program show that this is an activity that takes care of all aspects of children's growth and development. It stimulates physical activity, coordination, endurance, motivation, it is fun and you can engage in it with others. It is absolutely in tune with the contemporary lifestyle and as such wonderfully accepted by children. It can therefore be recommended as an excellent public health program to advance health in children and young people and to prevent obesity, diseases of the musculoskeletal system, respiratory tract, and psycho-social disorders.

In light of all this, I recommend that a program like this be made available to more children. Considering the specific needs of school children, it is only fitting to ensure that they engage in physical activity every day as part of their school curriculum or extracurricular activities. Along with the physical activities that are part of the school curriculum, it is necessary to incorporate activities on days when they are not part of the curriculum, in the duration of 15 minutes at minimum. Furthermore, it is necessary to affect the attitudes and established ways of organising parties and to provide information about healthy eating and the need for physical activity. Aside from teaching parents and children the theoretical framework, parties can be organised for demonstration, which would be the practical part of the course. So far experiences here and abroad have shown that programs that use this concept are well received and that they contribute significantly to children's health and the health of the whole community.

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