Go play outside! Growing up, many of us heard this directive coming from our parents. Today, kids are more apt to be playing inside on some sort of tech device. They’re parked in front of a television or computer engrossed in an exciting video game, or sitting and tapping away at mobile apps. It’s doubtful many parents try to keep children and teens active by calling out, “Go play on your laptop!” But should they?
Times change. Could it be that the “Go play outside” model of previous generations has run its course? Inactivity and obesity are real problems among today’s youth—a group that is quite technologically literate (when they have access to tech devices). Anyone who’s seen a 10-year-old with a tablet knows kids can work their way around such gadgets quite confidently!
Opinions vary on how far to integrate technology into kids’ fitness, if at all. This article is an exploration: How might technology help, not hinder, the fitness industry’s efforts to encourage kids to move—especially kids who don’t easily identify as “sporty” types. Are there feasible approaches to meeting children and adolescents where they are with screen time, instead of eschewing it? Experts share their thoughts.
Why Are Kids Sedentary? Technology Is One Culprit
Multiple factors contribute to why kids are not as active today as in decades past: less access to, or the ability to opt out of, physical education classes at school; sedentary parents; an overemphasis on super-athleticism, competition and winning; a lack of safe places to play, especially in urban areas; less unstructured free time; and more. Then there’s technology, of course. Ironically, the tool that is partly to blame for inactivity might also help kids become more active.
“Children and adolescents spend, on average, 7 hours engaging in sedentary ‘screen-based’ activity each day, and the majority do not meet the national recommendation of 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity,” says Nicole J. Martin, PhD, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. “Lowered levels of youth physical activity during leisure time can be attributed, at least in part, to advancements in modern technology, and most specifically, video games.”
No doubt, video games—not to mention tablets, smartphones and mobile apps—are captivating. (Even grown-ups often fixate on their phones while in coffee shops, on public transit and just walking down the street.) “Smart technology may provide a level of stimulation that is difficult to compete with, although often sedentary in nature,” says Martin.
Today’s time-squeezed parents also lean on technology to keep kids occupied. “Video games and television have become common sources of entertainment/childcare for parents who are busy, working or overextended,” says P. Cris Dobrosielski, CSCS, owner of Monumental Results Fitness and Wellness Clinic in San Diego and a sports performance expert for primary-, high-school and collegiate-level youth. “The basketball and jump rope of yesteryear have commonly been replaced with Xbox and Netflix,” he says.
To a tech-obsessed child, monkey bars are no match for all the bells and whistles on a smart device or video game. “Traditional, old-school play has simply not kept up with other areas of a kid’s life,” says Coleman Greene, MBA, cofounder and CEO of Sqord Inc., a Seattle-based company that provides a wearable activity tracker and online entertainment platform designed for kids. “It has been crowded out by other, more engaging alternatives that are often sedentary [in nature]. Play has just stagnated—it is the same now as it was when I was growing up and when my parents were growing up. Every other influence in a kid’s life has been made significantly cooler via technology.” And this exposure to technology affects kids of all ages, from toddlers to teens!
“Screen time is at an all-time high,” says Brett Klika, CEO of SPIDERfit Kids in San Diego and 2013 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year. “Even extremely young children are being exposed to all-time-high screen time in front of televisions, computers and other devices. These offer short-term sensory gratification, but no physical activity.”
But what about when technology does promote physical activity for kids? “In my opinion,” says Ted Vickey, MS, senior advisor for fitness technology at the American Council on Exercise (ACE), “the use of technology to help kids become healthier and more active is one of many different approaches that we can take to help change a culture of physical inactivity.”
Technology as a Conduit to Get Kids More Active
A bank of studies suggests that active video games (AVG) in particular may encourage children and teens to exercise using a medium that’s both familiar and interesting to them (Gao et al. 2015; Lamboglia et al. 2013; Martin, Ameluxen-Coleman & Heinrichs 2015; Smallwood et al. 2012). Kids usually play AVG, also called exergaming, on a television hooked up to a gaming system, but there are also mobile apps designed to turn exercise into a game, with themes that are likely to appeal to kids, such as superheroes, zombies or treasure hunts. Many fitness apps and devices play up gamification, where users earn points and/or virtual badges or rewards as a way to make the activity more enjoyable and engaging.
“Active video games are appealing to children and adolescents, and have been shown to increase intrinsic motivation toward fitness,” says Martin. “Smartphone apps have characteristics that increase fun and enjoyment, reinforce progress, and provide support through social media platforms. By utilizing ‘screen-based’ technology and smartphone apps, educators can better assist youth to meet national physical activity guidelines and [to] decrease the overall number of hours [spent in] sedentary lifestyles.”
In a recent meta-analysis (i.e., a process of analyzing results from multiple experiments on a similar topic), researchers looked at 512 previously published studies and 35 articles and determined that compared with sedentary behaviors, “AVGs had a large effect on health outcomes.” In the study, published in Obesity Reviews, researchers determined that “AVGs can be a good alternative for sedentary behaviour and addition to traditional physical activity and sports in children/adolescents” (Gao et al. 2015).
Another review, published in Journal of Obesity looked at AVG and childhood obesity. Overall, playing active video games was found to increase physical activity levels, energy expenditure, maximal oxygen uptake and heart rate. Results also indicated that waist circumference and sedentary screen time decreased. “Thus,” concluded researchers, “exergaming may be considered a highly relevant strategic tool for the adoption of an active and healthy lifestyle and may be useful in the fight against childhood obesity” (Lamboglia et al. 2013).
A study of 322 overweight and obese children, aged 10–14, found that participants in a 6-month AVG intervention saw an improvement in body composition, spent more time playing active video games and spent less time playing nonactive video games, compared with a control group. While kids in the AVG group showed no change in body mass index at the end of the study compared with baseline (i.e., measurements taken at the start of the study), BMIincreased in the nonactive control group (Maddison et al. 2011).
Researchers in another study from the United Kingdom compared the effects of traditional, sedentary video games against active ones with a dance or sports boxing component. The sample included 18 boys and girls, aged 11–15. Energy expenditure was up to 194% higher when they played AVG than it was during sedentary video games. The researchers concluded that regularly playing AVG “could prove to be an effective means for increasing physical activity and energy expenditure in children” (Smallwood et al. 2012).
“Youth gravitate toward technology,” says Martin. “I do not believe it is effective to ignore the possibilities in which it can be used to facilitate movement. Research has shown that AVGs can provide children with the opportunity to practice skills such as manual and body coordination, functional mobility, and the ability to follow movement cues and direction, as well as increase physical competence.”
Martin’s own research is concerned with using technology to help increase physical activity and enhance health among kids. In her 2015 article “Innovative Ways to Use Modern Technology to Enhance, Rather Than Hinder, Physical Activity Among Youth,” Martin offers best practices to educators for integrating activity-based video games and mobile apps into curricula. The sidebar “Tools for Trying Fit Tech With Kids” is adapted from a few of her recommendations.
Of course, all this active video gaming still happens indoors—forget about fresh air—where kids are perhaps not engaging much in team play, unstructured play or social play. However, not all kids feel comfortable with traditional models of exercise, such as team sports, or even physical play in front of peers who might tease or ridicule them.
Exercise for Every Kid
Technology is one way to link fitness, a practice that some kids deem physically and emotionally uncomfortable, with a pastime that’s emotionally safe and familiar. “The benefits of using fitness technology come for the kids who really enjoy technology but may not be as engaged in traditional physical activity,” says LJ Bartle, director of Toronto-based HIGH FIVE®, a national quality standard in Canada for children’s recreation and sport, founded by Parks and Recreation Ontario (PRO).
“One of the major factors that can affect a child’s level of activity is having a negative experience,” says Bartle. “A negative experience means that a kid’s safety has been compromised either physically or emotionally. One bad experience can turn a kid off for life.”
“I believe in order to combat childhood obesity we have to provide solutions for all kids,” says Tricia Murphy Madden, a group exercise instructor and fitness director at Denali Fitness in Seattle. She is also the coauthor of The ABC’s of Exercise(Peanut Butter Publishing 2015), a read-along/move-along picture book designed to introduce young kids to a healthy, fit lifestyle. “Sports and dance won’t work for all children, and if kids don’t choose to participate in those types of activities, they are classified early as ‘nonathletic.’ If we meet kids where their interests lie, we win the battle. Some children are drawn to technology in the same way some adults are, and these technology tools are helping non-sport-specific kids and adults to move.”
While fitness technology can help a range of kids be more active and appreciate exercise as fun, its application may be especially strong for children who are quite sedentary and/or don’t identify with typical workouts or sports. Fitness technology can broaden the horizons for kids. “Movement only attached to sports can be incredibly dangerous if a child isn’t immediately successful,” Murphy Madden points out.
In addition to improving body composition, energy expenditure and time being moderately active, fitness technology aimed at kids may break down feelings of apathy or negativity toward exercise. For example, “testing out” fitness in a safe environment at home with an AVG or a mobile app may increase a child’s confidence in his or her physical abilities and fitness level. “Active video games provide youth with the opportunity to increase physical competence through practice or competitive play, and smartphone apps increase programming knowledge with initial fitness goals that gradually increase intensity as performance improves,” says Martin.
The more confident a child feels about his or her capacity to exercise, the more likely the child might be to eventually participate in traditional play/exercise, aka the “Go play outside” model. The hope is that technology inspires interest.
“Technology has the potential to serve as a stimulating/entertaining tool or bridge to bring inactive or disinterested kids to more [physical] activities,” says Dobrosielski. “By using something the kids are interested in and familiar with (technology), in a creative way, there is the possibility of providing a spark and a system that lends itself to exposure and gradual progression. The comfort and familiarity most kids have with technology can make the discomfort many have with movement a more manageable transition.”
As the cofounder of a company that makes wearable activity trackers especially for kids, Greene says the feedback this type of technology provides can be quite powerful. “It’s about building awareness and changing the perception of what it means to be active,” says Greene. Wearable activity trackers demonstrate that meaningful physical activity isn’t just about traditional sports or gym class. Running around in the backyard with the dog counts. Or playing hide and seek.
Short-Term Fun With Long-Term Benefits
Activity-based tech won’t appeal to kids for long if it’s not also fun and “gamified” in some way. That’s why kids see more game metrics than health metrics on the Sqord activity trackers, says Greene. “We want the feedback to be about fun, so we give kids an experience that is more in line with the other entertainment options they are engaging in on a regular basis. We have a community where kids can see and share their activity, compete with friends, earn awards, and discover new ways to get out and move more in the real world,” he says.
Because different styles and complexities of tech will appeal to different ages, there are simpler wearables on the market for toddler- and preschool-aged kids. Murphy Madden uses a colorful step counter made by a popular tech-toy company with her 4-year-old daughter. The device is meant to encourage active play and health habits. “We set a goal each day and make it a game for her. She is motivated to attain her fitness goal each day,” says Murphy Madden.
Whether they get there by high-tech or no tech, we want children and adolescents of all ages to look at physical activity as something that’s positive and fun. Dobrosielski says this is what will “drive lifelong fitness habits.” Short-term efforts must have long-term impact.
“[Technology] can provide immediate feedback, provide encouragement, and offer remote access to ideas and motivation to be active,” says Klika. “These attributes are especially important for children in extreme climates, where access to the outdoors is limited, as well as those who live in areas where it may be unsafe to play outside.”
Kids’ fit tech has the potential to represent a child’s entire exercise experience (not ideal) or just part of it (better). Alternatively, some experts on kids’ fitness would prefer almost none at all. For example, Active Healthy Kids Canada, an association that has since stopped operations and merged with ParticipACTION®, the national voice of physical activity and sports participation in Canada, released a position stand in 2013 stating that the organization at the time did “not recommend AVGs as a strategy to help children be more physically active” (Chaput et al. 2013).
Technology won’t appeal to everyone, but it can serve as one tool among many that might help us lead kids toward a lifelong love of physical movement. “I do not believe that fitness technology should replace traditional forms of play, physical activity and exercise,” says Martin. “I do see, however, [that] fitness technology [can provide] effective supplemental activity and teaching tools under certain circumstances.”
“Technology is not a bad thing,” says Bartle. “But it shouldn’t be used in isolation. Kids need personal interaction to grow and develop into healthy individuals. If there are technological advancements that help stimulate kids to be more active, and [if] that provides them with a positive experience, then that is great.”
Still, she says, technology can’t replace human interaction and self-directed, creative play. “Whether it is being a part of a hockey team or meeting friends at a local park for free play, the value of personal relationships in nurturing healthy child development cannot be overstated,” says Bartle. “The other real risk is that kids no longer have the ability to create natural play environments, because it is all being programmed (literally) for them.”
While Klika acknowledges the immediate advantages of fitness technology, he doesn’t use it in his own kids’ programming. “My efforts with children are focused on getting them to restore their imagination as it relates to play,” he says. “I believe technology is a large part of the inactivity problem. Technology is not necessarily accessible to the children who need it most (low socioeconomic status), and it does not offer a long-term solution to the obesity problem.” Klika worries that too much technology won’t teach kids “an organic love” for physical activity. “What happens when fitness and health become another mundane metric in a day full of catalogued numbers?” he asks.
The key to fit tech working for kids, says Greene, is to find “the balance of making the experience engaging while not contributing to more of the same problem.”
The Future of Kids’ Fit Tech
Technology is now rooting itself in fitness for adults. Given that the youngest generation is already adept at technology, it seems highly likely that the future of kids’ fitness will include more of it, as well. “As more connected devices come online, we will be able to build on this foundation to provide an even richer online-offline experience that will help kids find new ways to get up and get out in their community,” says Greene.
“Kids and fitness technology will help to rebrand traditional exercise,” says Vickey. “It isn’t about going to the gym for an hour a day; it is about being more physically active throughout the day, and that may include going to the gym. Walking around school, standing rather than sitting, riding a bike to school can all be measured now with fitness technology. What can be measured can be improved. That improvement potential is what excites me [about] kids using fitness technology to be more physically active.”
Among all the bells, whistles, metrics and feedback that fit tech provides, Bartle likes to weigh quality against quantity. “It would be wonderful if everyone’s goal was to help kids have positive experiences in physical activity instead of just being physically active,” she says. “Because research shows the person who has a positive experience in physical activity as a child will stay active for life.”
Mixing technology with fitness isn’t the only answer to getting kids more active and enjoying it! But it’s a plausible start. “To maximize effectiveness,” says Martin, “interventions should consider the developmental needs of youth (i.e., skill development, fun, affiliation, excitement, success and fitness) [and find ways] to attract, and maintain, interest in physical activity and exercise over time.” Any well-intentioned effort toward helping kids avoid the disadvantages of inactivity in childhood—and then adulthood—is worth a try.