The family that games together stays together
NEW YORK: The family that plays an online game together may get more exercise together, a new study suggests.
Sound counter-intuitive? Well, researchers have long struggled with finding ways to coax families to move more, but the online game – where the only prize was a lowly mug – convinced spouses, parents and kids to log more steps in their daily walking routines.
While all of the participants were white, and richer and healthier than most others their age in the US, the study authors believe the approach holds plenty of potential.
Games are “a promising approach to improve daily health behaviours”, said Dr Mitesh Patel. He is an assistant professor of medicine and health care management at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “But the design of the game is critical to its success.”
More than half of adult Americans don’t get enough exercise, according to Patel. There’s evidence that connections with other people can help individuals exercise more, but “most exercise programmes focus on the individual and don’t harness these interactions from social networks”.
For the new study, the researchers sent step-tracking technology, such as a Fitbit, to the participants. The investigators also provided an app to family members enlisted in the study. One person in each family group was randomly chosen to be tracked each day, and the group gained points if that person met goals for steps.
“Everyone got five lifelines to use on days they were sick or couldn’t achieve their goals for other reasons. This provided a sense of forgiveness,” Patel said. At the end of 12 weeks, groups would receive mugs if they met certain exercise goals. There were no other prizes.
Two hundred people from 94 family groups took part in the study. Overall, they were significantly different than the US general population: 56% were female and their average age was 55. The group was active overall, exercising an average of about 7 500 steps a day before the study began; Patel said the average in the US is closer to 5 000 steps.
Also, all participants were part of the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term study of health in a Massachusetts town. About half of the participants were assigned to play the game and get messages about their step goals, while the others only received the messages (the “control” group).
In an accompanying commentary, researcher Dr Ichiro Kawachi writes that “much remains to be learned about gamification” – a term that refers to the use of games to encourage actions like buying a product or exercising more.
In virtual reality (including games like Pokemon Go), “the line between entertainment and public health is becoming progressively blurred”, wrote Kawachi.
According to Kawachi, there’s an opportunity to use technology to make improving health an “engaging, fulfilling and fun activity”.
The study was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. – New York Times