Physical activity experts at Active Healthy Kids Canada reviewed more than 1,300 published papers on active video games like those that combine consoles with wands on Nintendo's Wii and the Kinect device for Xbox.
"Active Healthy Kids Canada does not recommend active video games as a strategy to help kids be more physically active," they conclude in a position statement published Monday.
The research suggested that active video games get heart rates up somewhat, but not strongly or long enough to get the full 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity children and youth need each day, said Dr. Mark Tremblay, the group's chief scientific officer and director of the healthy active living and obesity research group at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa.
While active video games can help break up sedentary time like sitting on the couch watching TV, they're just not as valuable as playing sports or physical games like tag.
"It may actually be pulling a person inside away from doing, for example, real tennis or real golf or real ball hockey or something like to that to do it in an artificial setting, inside, away from the sun, breathing indoor air, interacting artificially with people," Tremblay said.
Instead of spending holiday gift funds on video games, Active Healthy Kids Canada suggests buying more traditional tools for activity, like skipping ropes, balls, ice skates and other sporting equipment.
The recommended 60 minutes of physical activity is the equivalent of about 12,000 steps, said Michelle Brownrigg, a director of physical activity at the University of Toronto's faculty of kinesiology and physical education.
Collecting steps in the real world
Brownrigg recently evaluated a different kind of active video game.
More than 250 children aged 10 and 11 across Canada tested the pedometer-powered game in the spring. Each child created an avatar, but to advance in the virtual world, the child had to rack up physical steps in the real world.
When the study started, 46 of 125 girls who participated fell into the "least active" category, getting less than 7,000 steps a day.
Over the study period, 69 per cent, or 32 of those 46 girls, moved up at least one category, Brownrigg said.
Inactive girls are often a group that are hard to engage in physical activity, she said.
"Some of the research findings showed that girls talked about it more with their friends, they encouraged their friends to participate, so they created a bit of a social structure around it in a way that the boys didn't," Brownrigg said, adding that the lead character in the game was a female role model, which might have helped, too.
Step counts for the 128 boys increased overall as well during game play, but not among the least active boys, she found.
Gulnaz Shaikan, 11, enjoyed collecting steps and points to dress up her avatar and travel in the virtual world.
"Sometimes we even have competitions between our friends [to see] who can get more steps and who can get to a higher goal," Gulnaz said.
Once the experiment ended, the children kept the pedometers but no longer had access to the game. At that point, they took fewer steps than when the study began.
"I think we have to be coming at this from a bunch of different directions because behaviour change doesn't happen with just one," Brownrigg said.
Rather, experts stressed the need for kids to be active outside, in school and at home.
Brownrigg's study was funded by Concerned Children’s Advertisers, a group of advertisers and broadcasters.
The advertising group and the provincial government's Ontario Trillium Foundation are funding a second pilot project in the spring to test the game in communities in Northern Ontario with high rates of childhood obesity.