Executive fitness director commends USF health research

At Belle Witter Elementary School in Tampa, students are actually encouraged to play video game during class.

That’s because they’re part of a new program developed by USF researchers to keep children physically fit – a trend Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, said she hopes to see increase.

“I think active gaming arcades like this are the future for physical education and they are part of a comprehensive physical education (P.E.) program,” she said during a lecture at the Tampa Fairgrounds.

Students attend the Witter Active Gaming Lab at least twice per week for 30-to 60-minute video game sessions that contribute to their physical education. All of the video games require movement.

In “Xavix Boxing,” students strap on gloves that register their boxing movements. For “Toy Story,” students stand atop stair-steppers and must remain active for the game to progress.

In fall 2007, the School of Physical Education and Exercise Science received a $526,000 collaborative grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Active Gaming Research program received about $125,000 of the grant and used it to create the lab.

“We purchased all of this active gaming equipment with the idea that kids are more motivated and engaged to be physically active when they can also play video games that they’re playing at home and the like,” said Steve Sanders, director of the School of Physical Education and Exercise Science. “It’s a lot different than doing sit-ups and push-ups and running laps around the field, which kids don’t like to do.”

Pfohl, who was appointed to her position by President Barack Obama earlier this year, toured the school’s Active Gaming Lab on Nov. 18. She said the program is valuable because it finds creative ways to target childhood obesity – a problem that “impacts our society in so many ways.”

“No matter where you are, no matter what you do in life, childhood obesity should be important to you,” she said.

Pfohl said that for the first time in human history, the life expectancy of children may be lower than their parents. The dangers of childhood obesity are obvious, she said, and the effects the epidemic have on society seldom receive enough recognition.

“If we do not look at their health now, my suggestion is that it will bankrupt us in the future,” she said. “If this generation of kids is allowed to become more and more obese, when they hit the workforce, many companies will not be able to survive.”

Pfohl said increased health care costs and a denigrated work performance directly resulting from obesity may one day sink our economy if nothing is done now to address the problem. The Witter lab gives young people a head start on a positive life, she said.

“To me it’s the gateway behavior,” she said. “Physical activity is the gateway behavior to so many positive things.”

Lisa Hansen, an assistant professor for the School of Physical Education and Exercise Science and co-director of the University’s Active Gaming Research Laboratories, said the first lab of this kind, the XRKADE Research Laboratory, was opened on the USF Tampa campus in December 2006.

“We’re not suggesting (children) do this instead of traditional (P.E.). We’re suggesting they replace the sedentary game time they already do at home and go to something natural,” she said. “Moms and dads: go buy active games for Christmas. Don’t go buy a ‘Toy Story’ (video game) where they sit and play, buy the (version with a) stepper, so they can still play ‘Toy Story’ but they have to move.”

Hansen said that apart from the workout, a major goal of the student’s time spent in the lab is to teach them about the equipment they use.

“They don’t come in here and just play,” Hanson said. “There is a learning objective attached every single time.”

Stacy Villagomez, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Belle Witter Elementary, said she has been coming to the lab since it was opened in January 2009. Her favorite game is “Dance Dance Revolution,” in which a floor mat registers dance moves players are instructed to perform.

“In my other classes, after I come here, I feel energized, I feel happy and I feel like I had a workout,” she said.

Ismael Rivera, who is also a 10-year-old fifth grader, said he was thrilled when he first found out that he would get to play video games at school.

“I’ve been coming to this center since last year,” he said. “I thought that it would be awesome, because first P.E.’s all about exercising and getting your heart rate up, and when (our P.E.) coach put in all of the games inside the game room, it made sense. You can play the games at the same time you exercise.”