Preventive medicine researchers at the Keck School of Medicine have designed an interactive multimedia project that successfully increases physical activity among pre-teen girls.
After completing the eight-week Interactive Multimedia for Promoting Physical Activity (IMPACT) project, which combined a CD-ROM game at school with follow-up assignments both at school and with parents at home, participating girls had lost weight and increased the time they spent in light activity, such as playing and walking. Results were published in the April issue of the journal Obesity Research.
“Overweight, obesity and type 2 diabetes are rapidly growing among children in this country, especially among African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans,” said study co-author Michael I. Goran, professor of preventive medicine and physiology and biophysics at the Keck School and associate director of the USC Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research. “Being overweight during childhood is linked to greater risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, so preventing obesity in kids and teens is a high priority.”
Unfortunately, less than 36 percent of elementary and secondary schools today offer daily physical education. At the same time, about two-thirds of children watch television for more than two hours a day, a factor linked to obesity.
With that in mind, Goran and Kim Reynolds, associate professor of preventive medicine, and their team set out to promote physical activity among kids. Their tool: a CD-ROM game they designed to increase children’s activity, decrease sedentary behavior, limit growth in body mass index and make children feel good about activity.
In the IMPACT game, a group of multicultural children travels the globe in search of magic ingredients to concoct an antidote to an elixir created by an evil character called Snidwitt, who wants everyone to hate being active.
The researchers paired eight interactive, animated CD-ROM lessons with four classroom lessons and four family-based assignments. These assignments encourage children to turn off the TV and pursue activities with their family members.
Fourth-graders from four elementary schools in the West Covina School District in Los Angeles County participated in the eight-week-long study. Children from two schools used the IMPACT game while children from the other two schools used other unrelated educational CD-ROMs. In all, 209 children ages 9 to 11 participated.
Before and after the program, researchers measured children’s height, weight, percentage body fat and physical activity level and assessed children’s beliefs and attitudes about physical activity.
Overall, children slightly reduced their moderate-level activity after IMPACT, but girls significantly increased their light-intensity activities. Girls’ increase in light-intensity activity more than made up for the decrease in moderate activity, resulting in about 16 more calories burned per day (adding up to nearly 1,000 calories over the 8-week program). Researchers believe that the increase in energy burned explains the 0.2-kilogram weight difference (nearly half a pound) between girls in the IMPACT group and girls in the control group at the end of the study.
Girls also seemed to respond to messages in the game that encouraged them to believe that they could be physically active and that activity was rewarding.
Researchers are unsure why boys did not increase activity or lose weight. “We suspect that boys tended to blast through the CD-ROM and were more interested in getting to the next level than learning,” Goran said. “The characters and stories might also have appealed more to girls.”
The researchers also believe that environmental barriers may determine the type of activity children can perform. Increasing moderate-to-vigorous activity in kids may require access to special equipment, a sports facility (such as a swimming pool or ballpark), or other friends or parents who want to participate. Light activities may not require a special environment or equipment, so they are easier to initiate.
Although using inactive behavior such as computer use to foster physical activity may seem unusual, Goran said, “children are drawn to computers, and computer technology is here to stay. Our philosophy was to use the power of computer technology to our advantage to invoke beneficial changes in behavior.”
The researchers are currently developing a variety of strategies for obesity and diabetes reduction and prevention among children and teens.
Michael I. Goran and Kim Reynolds, “Interactive Multimedia for Promoting Physical Activity in Children,” Obesity Research. Vol. 13, No. 4, April 2005.