05/09/2012 02:40 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Kids' physical activity helps power online game in fitness pilot project

TORONTO, Canada` - Jurmaine Dowe detaches his digital pedometer and inserts it into the docking station, and it's not long before a flurry of colourful graphics pop up and saturate the computer screen.

Within moments, the 11-year-old will be on a globetrotting journey within a virtual world that will transport him to such varied locales as Blackfoot Crossing, the Empire State Building, Mount Everest, and the moon.

But before the Grade 5 student at Toronto's Blacksmith Public School can navigate through the digital domain, he first must rack up steps through physical activity to power his online play.

Jurmaine is among 250 kids across Canada taking part in a pilot project aimed at offering youngsters some added incentive to get moving.

Concerned Children's Advertisers has launched what is being billed as the first-ever online game to use kids' daily activity as its sole power source.

The project's aim is to determine whether gaming can be used as a motivator to change sedentary behaviour, and, in turn, increase physical activity levels among kids.

In addition to other communities within Ontario including Mississauga, Paris, Orillia and Rama, the pilot is also in place in Moncton, Regina and Whitehorse.

Children are outfitted with digital pedometers known as Fitbits that track and upload their daily steps to an online game called GOGOYU. When online, they create and customize their own avatars.

But for parents concerned about kids spending countless hours glued to screens, they needn't worry: the game has strict time limits, and offers ample educational value to its users.

Participants must reach a minimum daily physical activity goal of 8,000 steps, and a built-in timer limits game play to 20 minutes a day.

As they navigate through the game, they can earn energy boosters known as "karats," learn nutritional information as well as facts about the different locales which are woven throughout the various challenges.

The pilot's first week involves students wearing the Fitbit daily without interaction with GOGOYU. An online survey is also conducted to assess their sports involvement and levels of activity, said CCA school liaison Susan Houston.

The students then have four weeks interacting with the game. During the project's final phase, youngsters wear the Fitbit for one more week to see if they are continuing to keep up with their steps.

CCA president Bev Deeth said research they conducted with kids revealed that youngsters recognize the importance of leading a healthy, active life. However, that knowledge alone wasn't necessarily enough to spur them to take action or make a change.

The information was shared with ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky, which developed the idea of a game powered by real-life activity.

"With one in four kids in this country being overweight or obese, this is taking a very creative new direction approach to an issue that's very problematic," Deeth said. "We felt that we were reaching kids in more of a relevant and meaningful and motivating way."

Deeth said the game is designed to help kids get their 60 minutes of recommended moderate to vigorous physical activity a day.

According to the 2011 report card from Active Healthy Kids Canada, only nine per cent of boys and four per cent of girls are meeting those targets.

Recent research from the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute suggests kids should accumulate about 12,000 steps daily to maintain healthy physical activity levels. The step-count figure includes the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity.

Soccer sessions at school for Jurmaine and fellow classmates Nathaniel Sinke and Shirley Tran, both 10, have helped in their efforts to ramp up their step counts.

"I was psyched because it was kind of fun hearing about the game, seeing my character and everything, and seeing how many steps I could get a day... and trying to beat my highest step count," said Jurmaine.

Shirley has racked up as many as 21,000 steps in a day and does whatever she can to increase her pedometer clicks.

"When we're doing squats, I always add marches to it to get more steps."

Justin Dockery, a fifth-grade teacher at Blacksmith, said while the main focus has been on physical activity, they have also had informal conversations with the students about the places they are visiting in the game.

Not all of the kids have been keen to participate. Andrew Wood, who teaches a split Grade 4/ 5 class at Blacksmith, admits a few of his students haven't worn the Fitbit at all.

"You're not going to get everybody. But the point is: `How many can you get?'" he said.

"Some kids aren't going to be on board. But the point is to get more on board than otherwise," added Dockery.

The pilot is slated to wrap up next month, and results will be reviewed by researchers at the University of Toronto.

Michelle Brownrigg, director of physical activity and equity at U of T, has examined a fair bit of research looking at screen time and its correlation to physical inactivity. She said the pilot project is an "interesting, new contribution" to exploring the relationship between screen time and being physically active.

"Everything that we can look at that can figure out how we can engage kids, engage families, that will put them into a situation of building physical activity into daily life is all a good contribution."



Concerned Children's Advertisers: