Tyler Cox has been so busy with baseball practice, soccer games and homework that he hasn't had time to battle his little brother on their Wii video-game console.
"We actually stopped playing," the 10-year-old Calgary resident said without a hint of sadness.
After all, he gets his gaming fix at school.
Educators at Foundations for the Future Charter Academy in Calgary, where Tyler attends Grade 4, recently installed about a dozen "exergames" on the elementary school's stage, which is part of the gymnasium. Students can play dance, yoga and sports video games during gym class, and after-school clubs are in the works.
It's part of a study looking at whether active gaming devices such as the Wii Balance Board and iDance, a wireless dance system, have health benefits for kids. For five years, researchers from the University of Calgary and Mount Royal College will measure whether the games have an impact on the cardiovascular fitness, balance and agility of children in Grades 3 and 4.
"This is the gamer generation," said Dwayne Sheehan, who leads the study, which is partly funded by the Alberta government. "We're trying to find a way that we can work with their interests and still keep kids active."
The study is a response to the disturbing levels of sedentary behaviour among Canadian youth due to the soaring popularity of video games. Researchers are wondering: Can we harness that enthusiasm for gaming and actually do some good?
That interest applies not only in schools, but also in rehabilitation hospitals. Scientists, including those at Bloorview Kids Rehab and the University of Toronto, are looking at whether the games may provide good physical therapy for seniors, children with cerebral palsy and young amputees.
Wii Fit, which launched in North America in 2007, has quickly become one of the top-selling video games on the market. On the accompanying Balance Board, players can do everything from real exercises such as pushups and yoga moves to simulated activities such as snowboarding. Other active games, such as Dance Dance Revolution, which comes with a plastic mat, allow kids to build points by keeping up with the steps dictated by the game.
On its website, Nintendo claims that by "playing Wii Fit a little every day, you, your friends and your family can work toward personal goals of better health and fitness."
But researchers such as Dr. Sheehan and his co-researcher Larry Katz, a kinesiology professor at the University of Calgary, want proof. In their study students such as Tyler will be measured for balance and other physical factors. Another study will look at how their fitness compares with that of children who do only regular gym activities.
And because students will help monitor their own progress with heart monitors and other tools, researchers will also look at whether that engagement can heighten their excitement about physical activity. Nintendo Canada has donated several of the game consoles.
But critics say this is no way to reverse Canada's childhood obesity crisis. Not only are the health benefits of these games unproven, they say, but they will never replace the fresh air, skills development and socialization that accompany traditional physical activities.
"I don't think it's a good idea to be teaching children to be active this way," said Ian Janssen, an assistant professor in the community health and epidemiology department at Queen's University in Kingston.
The games have no place in schools, he added.
When Dr. Janssen became aware of Wii Fit and a similar game, Wii Sports, he was intrigued - especially when he saw his nephew playing a vigorous game of virtual tennis. But the feeling soon turned to dismay as his nephew quickly adopted shortcuts; a full tennis swing became a flick of the wrist, for example.
Much of Dr. Janssen's work involves helping to determine how much activity children need to stay healthy. Canadian guidelines recommend that children get at least 90 minute a day more than their current level, he says, at an intensity that's moderate or vigorous (moderate activity should cause you to break a sweat within five to 10 minutes.)
He doesn't think time on Wii consoles should count toward any of those recommended 90 minutes. "To me, the Wii Fit still falls in the category of sedentary behaviour."
Kelly Murumets, head of the national fitness promotion organization ParticipACTION, agrees. She says the games are a "step in the right direction" - if only because mimicking sports may get kids interested in the real thing. And while she'll be interested to see what the Calgary researchers find, she's convinced the games "don't replace real, live physical activity."
Schools are where kids learn the "physical literacy" required to become healthy, active adults, she said. In other words, children need to learn the skills and confidence to throw a ball and run around, so that they'll continue to do so as they age.
You don't get that by throwing a pretend ball during a pretend baseball game, she said.
In Calgary, the school's principal, Cathy McCauley, emphasized that the gaming won't replace regular physical education. The school is a charter school, meaning it is publicly funded but has more autonomy than regular public schools, and this allows it to offer special programs.
Ms. McCauley said her students will also participate in traditional activities and exercises during gym class, which amounts to about 30 minutes a day. Still, she said, she's thrilled to be a part of the new research. So are the kids.
Tyler's reaction to having video games at school? "Yay, yay, yay, yay."
Helping a child amputee walk evenly
Learning to walk with a prosthetic leg isn't exactly fun.
Just ask Tara D'Souza, an 11-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., who lost her leg to flesh-eating disease in September, 2007. "It was boring," she says. "I hated the bed exercises. Still do."
What isn't boring, she says, is playing video games. And now researchers at the University of Toronto and Bloorview Kids Rehab are hoping they can harness young amputees' enthusiasm for gaming to get them to do their physiotherapy exercises.
"If we can make use of the attractiveness of the game and promote therapy for the kids, it's a win-win situation," said Ricardo Torres-Moreno, a bioengineer at Bloorview Kids Rehab, one of Canada's largest rehabilitation hospitals for children.
The main challenge for these kids, Dr. Torres-Moreno explained, is that they tend to ease off too much on their prosthesis. That makes their gait asymmetrical, which can lead to problems in the back and trunk, and even altered breathing.
Scientists have developed exercises to help patients learn to walk evenly. But patients - especially young ones - often slack off because the exercises become a chore.
For several months, six children aged 6 to 14 have participated in a study to see if gaming and therapy can be combined effectively.
Over a four-week period, for 40 minutes each day, they practised two video games on the Wii Balance Board that relied on balance. One, called Marble Drop, requires people to stand on the board and move from side to side and front to back to tilt a table on screen and get a virtual marble into a hole.
Their gait and balance was measured after four weeks, and also three months after they stopped using the games, to see what strength they had retained.
Results should be available in December, 2009, Dr. Torres-Moreno said. But Tara says the concept is a winner.
"It didn't feel like exercise. As soon as the study's over, we're getting a [Wii Balance Board]"