Carrie Augenstein, left, and Maureen Glismann play an Xbox Kinect video game. Glismann is wearing specialized equipment that measures her energy output.

Photographer: Heather Haynes for the Ohio University College of Health Sciences and Professions


Caitlin Laubenthal, an exercise physiology undergraduate, watches Maureen Glismann, left, and Carrie Augenstein play an Xbox Kinect video game as part of research that measures the players' energy output.

Photographer: Heather Haynes for the Ohio University College of Health Sciences and Professions

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Can a video game ward off the dreaded 'Freshman 15'

One recent afternoon, a Grover Center classroom took on the feel of an Ohio University residence hall room: A pair of students took turns playing video games, their laughter filling the air as they worked their way through "Just Dance" and "Sonic the Hedgehog Racing."

All in the name of science.

What at first glance looked like pure entertainment was actually part of a research project to measure whether new, active game systems such as the Xbox Kinect can help combat the infamous “Freshman 15” weight gain among college students.

The idea for the project resulted from a Christmas present, said Cheryl Howe, assistant professor of exercise physiology in the School of Applied Health Sciences and Wellness, who is directing the study. The school is part of the College of Health Sciences and Professions.

“My nephews got a system last Christmas and we played it,” Howe said. “My nephew was absolutely soaked (in sweat). He was 15 at the time, an athlete, a hockey player, and he was playing one of the active games and completely soaked after half an hour. I tried to play the game and I got winded. It sparked an interest in whether we finally had a system that was improved enough so that you have to be moving to play.”

The hypothesis is a straightforward one. The creators of the Kinect system and others like it have been promoting the technology as an alternative to traditional exercise. But is it effective?

“We want to see if these games are really, truly a substitute for the treadmill,” Howe said.

To do this, Howe and her crew of 10 undergraduates and a few graduate students has been running a series of subjects through a game session. The testers use a high-tech, scuba-gear-like suit and a heart monitor to measure the energy expended during seated (traditional) video games versus standing (active) ones in college-age adults.

The result is a healthy mix of real-world experience and weekly entertainment for the students involved. Jenelynn Kimble, a senior majoring in exercise physiology, is working as a tester and data collector. She hopes her role will help her make it into a physical therapy graduate program.

“(This experience) prepares me through leadership skills,” Kimble said. “Right now, we have 20 subjects, so I’m not overloading myself, but I have to be responsible with the data entry.”

The project is a quarter of its way to the goal of testing 80 subjects. It is the first study of its kind, Howe said, and her group, which includes colleagues Jason White and Marcus Barr, is racing to be the first to publish results. She thinks the data could play an important role in battling weight gain.

“I’d like to be able to promote this as an alternative, especially for college kids,” Howe said. “If you’re studying and take that 10-minute break and play a few games … do that off and on all night and you could really help combat obesity. They don’t even have to leave their dorm room. They don’t need a membership at (the student recreation center), they don’t need to walk across campus alone at night. They can just do it in the privacy of their dorm room.”

If the results are positive – if these games are indeed a viable substitute for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity – the next step would be testing some high-risk groups, including children and the elderly, Howe said. The technology could one day have an impact on the way people exercise, Howe said.

“With the elderly and children, it is just another way of motivating people to be physically active,” Howe said. “Especially with kids, if it’s not fun, they’re not going to do it. If we can increase our repertoire of things to promote, this is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best things out there.”