Active video gaming is an engaging pastime for kids and adults alike and is only gaining in popularity. But could this hobby offer health benefits that extend beyond just fun?

With obesity remaining a serious health concern in the United States, experts are continuously looking for ways to encourage the public to get more regular physical activity. Aside from reducing high blood pressure and lowering the risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and depression, exercising consistently can help you lose weight and keep the weight off.  

If hitting the gym is not your idea of a fun time, there is some promising news. There are endless ways to move your body that have nothing to do with hitting the gym, from checking common home chores off your list like gardening and raking leaves to engaging in sports like bicycling, swimming, and shooting hoops.

Some experts even suggest that video games, namely active video games (AVGs), should be included in the mix. An active video game is a motion-activated game that requires the body’s movement to control what takes place on the screen. In other words, the player uses his or her body as a joystick. Many active video games are fitness-related and include yoga, bowling, tennis, jumping rope, boxing, or dancing sessions.

So, is it true? Can an active video game be used as a successful exercise strategy to burn more calories if your ultimate goal is losing weight?

Let’s dig into the science to find out.

Active video gaming and METs: what are they?

The video game industry is no small business. It is estimated that Americans spent $60.4 billion on video games in 2021 alone, representing an 8% increase over what they spent in 2020. When it comes to physical exertion, active video games can range in intensity which is a value described in METs. For example, a muscle conditioning game may offer light intensity at 1.3 metabolic equivalents of task (METs), yoga and stretching games can be at a light 2.3 METs, a moderate cardio-resistance game can be at 4.0 METs, and a more vigorous cardio-resistance game can be at 6.0 METs. An action running game can be as vigorous as 7.7 METs.

METs are numbers that characterize the intensity of an activity, grouping them into sedentary, light, moderate, and vigorous categories.  Sedentary activities are activities with less than 1.5 METs, light intensity activities are around 1.6 to 3.0 METs, moderate intensity activities are around 3.0 to 6.0 METs, and vigorous activities are above 6.0 METs. These categories can give you an idea of which activities are most effective in helping your body use the most energy and burn the most calories to reach your health goals. For reference, the lightest of intensities, one MET, is the amount of oxygen the body consumes while sitting at rest. So, for example, an activity that is 5 METs requires the body to use around five times as much oxygen as when at rest.

What are the potential benefits of playing active video games?

According to proponents, playing active video games in the form of fitness may improve health in several ways. One clear advantage that active video games deliver is their ability to increase the amount of time people spend being physically active and burning calories, especially for people who would otherwise be sedentary. Exercise video games may even encourage people to maintain physical activity for longer. For example, a 2019 study followed the exercise habits of 283 adults after participating in a 12-week program of either playing exercise video games, walking on a treadmill, or not exercising at all. Those in the exercise video game program engaged in 30 more minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week compared to those who walked on the treadmill and 85 more minutes per week than those who didn’t exercise.

Active video games may also sharpen motor skills and cognitive performance and may even boost mental health. For example, experts have found that playing active video games provides a sense of psychological well-being, promotes self-esteem from succeeding at playing, and increases confidence in improved physical skills. Plus, playing is fun! These games often provide an enjoyable social outlet where players can be supported by other players.

Can playing active video games also lead to weight loss?

Fortunately for active video game buffs everywhere, engaging in regular gaming also appears to promote weight loss.

One study measured the body composition among 26 men and women between the ages of 18 and 30 before and after playing either a moderate or vigorous dance video game three times per week for 20 minutes over eight weeks. Calorie expenditure during each dance session was also measured. The dances were performed at 60% to 80% intensity. After eight weeks of exercising, which amounted to 60 minutes of exercise per week, the men’s weight decreased from an average of 168.8 lb to 167.3 lb, and the women’s weight reduced from an average of 158.6 lb to 157 lb. The average body fat percentage for the group also decreased by 1.2%, from 26.8% to 25.6%, during that same time. In addition, the male subjects burned 276 calories during each dance session, while the female subjects expended 176.

Another study suggested that video games might also improve body mass index (BMI). In this trial, 27 healthy adults engaged in three 50-minute interactive video dance game sessions per week for six weeks, where their BMI was measured before and after. The researchers found that the group’s average BMI decreased from 26.96 kg/m2 to 26.21 kg/m2. As a bonus, their cardiorespiratory fitness improved as well, with an increase in VO2 - the amount of oxygen the body uses during exercise - from 20.63 ml/kg/min to 21.69 ml/kg/min. Also, 40% of the subjects reported better sleep.

The bottom line

Active video games have significantly risen in popularity - a promising trend given that gaming is a fun and engaging social outlet and may also support an increase in physical activity for those who enjoy it. Spending time playing video games that require your body to move is a great way to try out something new while improving your cognitive function and enhancing your self-esteem - all while contributing toward the amount of recommended weekly exercise. Although most active video games offer a less intense workout and smaller calorie burn than their moderate-intensity counterparts, if you are a fan of active video games and include amping up your exercise as one of your health goals, playing video games may be just one more effective tool in your toolbox for staying active and having a blast while doing it!