Shrinky Dinks brand is for sale

Event planner Tami Forero, left, discussed an event menu with Ecumenical Social Ministries board members Dave O’Keefe, from left, Carolyn McDole and Sherry Clarkin. Photo by (The Gazette, Justin Edmonds)

PHILADELPHIA • The Kuyat children - 11-year-old John and 9-year-old Anna - were breathing hard the other day at the Upper Main Line YMCA.

The Broomall, Pa., siblings danced, kickboxed, biked and played tennis - an hourlong marathon that bested their dad's 45-minute routine at the Berwyn fitness center.It wasn't always this way.

"It was a chore to get them to do 15 minutes" at the Y, David Kuyat said. "Now, I'm waiting on them."

What changed? A couple of months ago, the Y introduced video games. The once much-maligned staple of couch potatoes has evolved into an exercise siren.

Games such as "Dance Dance Revolution" and simulated bowling, baseball and kickboxing are motivating children to get off their derrieres and move. Fitness centers and school gym classes are jumping on the "DDR" mat, the video bike, and the virtual tennis court with gusto.

The concept even has a hip calling card: exer-gaming.

"It's just another vehicle to captivate adolescents," said Fran Cleland, a professor of kinesiology at West Chester University and president of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

"You're standing in the middle like a gladiator and competing against your own personal best," she said of the youth appeal

Cleland and other experts view the interactive consoles as the latest hook that might draw reluctant adolescents to participate in physical activity for the 60 minutes a day the Centers for Disease Control recommend.

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"Children think of exercise negatively," said Lisa Hansen, co-director of the XRKade Research Lab at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "It's a major issue to get these children moving."

The Nintendo generation has grown up playing, and socializing, via a screen. Fewer partake in simple, unstructured games. For them, exercise is a chore, not the delightful afternoon of tag or jump rope that occupied their parents and parents' parents.

Not surprisingly, these same children find exer-games immensely enjoyable, Hansen said, based on pilot studies with elementary school students. The lab was established with funds from iTech Fitness, a company that makes the XRKade brand of interactive fitness equipment.

Limited studies have found that "these exer-games burn calories, do raise heartbeats, and offer a physical benefit for kids," according to Hansen. But, she added, it is unclear whether active gaming offers the same benefits as traditional workouts.

Still, fitness facilities with video game areas have multiplied. Three years ago, only a handful had space dedicated to exer-games. Now, Hansen estimated, at least 80 around the country offer the option.

Few people seem to take issue with children, who already spend up to 44 ½ hours a week in front of screens, spending even more time that way.

"Another half-hour or hour doesn't bother me if they're doing something physically active," said Michael Sachs, a Temple University professor of kinesiology.But, he cautioned, "it's not a panacea."

Ideally, it's a first step toward exploring other activities. Perhaps after doing virtual kickboxing, they might want to try real kickboxing, and so on. "You want more choices," he said. "If this gets kids moving, great. ... That's where you start."



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