Behind a nondescript door on the gray outside of Williamson Hall lies a lab where a researcher — armed with video game systems and a treadmill — wants to see how video games can positively affect children.
Zan Gao, director of the Physical Activity Epidemiology Laboratory, is pursuing a federal grant to expand his study of exergaming, the use of video games to promote cognitive and physical activity, especially in young kids.
The goal of the study, which began in September, is to examine how playing Wii and Xbox games affects children between the ages of 4 and 6.
Gao said he decided to take a closer look at young children because they enjoy the video games and are physically active.
When the study began, Gao brought children to the lab in Williamson Hall to test their heart rates, cognitive function, body composition, height, weight and percent of body fat.
Now, Gao monitors physical fitness, daily physical activity and cognitive function.
Gao has the 31 subjects wear a band with a tiny monitor for one week to help collect the data, which allows him to explore the physical and cognitive effects of exergaming in a home-based setting. He said he’s recruiting more children into the study.
After getting his bachelor’s in physical education and working for three years as a journalist in southern China, Gao moved to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in kinesiology at Louisiana State University.
“When I was a graduate student at LSU, I worked primarily with schoolchildren, especially the children from low-income families. I noticed the obesity issue among this population,” Gao said.
After receiving his PhD, Gao took a faculty position at the University of Utah, where he began researching exergaming after a medical student suggested using Dance Dance Revolution in a local school.
They worked with the school’s staff and created an after-school program that used video games to promote physical activity in students.
They used a similar program for two years until Gao moved to Texas Tech University, where he replicated it at elementary schools there between 2012 and 2015.
“We expanded the program, including Wii program gaming and Xbox at three elementary schools,” Gao said about the schools in Texas.
Gao moved to Minnesota in 2012, joining the University’s kinesiology school. He soon connected with an administrator from the Anne Sullivan Communication Center, a school in south Minneapolis. By February 2013, an exergaming lab had been established in the school.
Gao said he was initially drawn to this type of research after noticing the high obesity rate of children in the U.S. A third of children and two-thirds of adults are overweight,
which can be attributed to behavioral problems, Gao said.
“So how to motivate that and how to change the behavior is a critical issue for us, for the researchers,” Gao said. “Since I worked with the children in the DDR program, I realized this can be a very good channel [for] physical activity.”
Gao set up a second lab in the 2014 school year in north Minneapolis’ Loring Community School, which has around 420 elementary students.
“I think it’s a great concept. It gets the kids moving right away, and I also like the part where it’s not only fitness level but for their brains,” said Loring physical education
teacher Nancy Duwenhoegger. “They’re moving, so their brains are moving.”
Duwenhoegger, who has worked at the school for 16 years, said although the lab is not large enough to accommodate more than 12 students at a time, it works well for the younger classes and the special education classes.
“The kids are so used to playing video games that it’s just a natural fit for them,” said Duwenhoegger. “They don’t even realize that they’re moving, that they’re exercising.”
Thomas Stoffregen, a University of Minnesota professor of kinesiology and human movement science, does research similar to Gao’s.
“The real connection for me with Gao is that he’s using interactive Internet computer technology. There’s a methodological overlap,” said Stoffregen, who studies motion sickness and human-computer interaction.
Stoffregen said no one at the University was doing exergaming before Gao came to the school.
This study was made possible through a seed grant from the University’s Obesity Prevention Center. The $50,000 grant allowed Gao to work with families in a different study
last spring and in the current one this fall, but he said he wants to expand the project through a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2016.
“Exergaming is fun in nature,” Gao said. “That fun component can motivate an individual to change their behavior.”