Staying healthy can be fun!

Can or dropping some pounds or learning about diabetes be as much fun as playing a video game? Millions of people, and some major health organizations, think so.

Games like Wii, Wii Fit, Dance, Dance Revolution, Brain Age, and more than 600 other health e-games have proven to be truly effective ways to help people change their behavior, says Douglas Goldstein, a leading eFuturist and e-health expert focused on the role of technology and entertainment in our lives.

“It’s a whole realm of approaches using positive reinforcement that people like and will do,” says Goldstein, who is CEO of Gaming4Health and its parent company, iConecto.

The power of fun

Health e-games are available for Nintendo, Xbox, PlayStation, and online for computers. In addition, Goldstein says, “over 1,000 health, fitness and medical apps now exist for smart phones, and there are texting4health messaging approaches to basic cell phones that can be used to help people stop smoking or lose weight. We’re really talking about the concept of e-health and digital media to improve and support better health anywhere.”

For example, more than a million people manage their fitness with a microchip in their Nike running shoes that connects to an iPod. The system captures data syncs in iTunes and profiles their results and also allows them to challenge their friends across the country. It can also connect to personal health records and other health apps where people can monitor and track progress toward their health goals.

Many people think of e-games as mere entertainment, but “video games are tools that can be used for positive purposes and productive entertainment,” Goldstein says.

Goldstein notes that 23 percent of U.S. adults play video games on a daily basis. Nintendo’s Wii Fit, which helps adults begin and stick to an exercise program, has sold more than 17 million units worldwide, and many seniors in retirement communities enjoy virtual bowling and tennis through Wii Sports.

Video games also have been demonstrated to help patients learn about their conditions and support their fight against chronic diseases. An advanced example is ReMission, developed by Hope Lab, which simulates the body’s fight against cancer through a nanobot named Roxxi who seeks out and assaults cancer cells. ReMission.net, an associated Web site, connects teens and young adults living with cancer with an interactive support community.

ReMission’s effectiveness has been demonstrated through clinical trials. A study published in the August 2008 issue of Pediatrics showed ReMission increased young patients’ compliance with oral chemotherapy and antibiotics treatment plans and improved their cancer-related knowledge. Clinical trials have been completed or are under way on other games focusing on cancer, asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, exercise, and brain development.

Health-care companies such as Humana and Kaiser Permanente have recognized the effectiveness of e-games for patient education, wellness, and disease management. Kaiser Permanente has developed award-winning games that teach kids to eat healthier and move more.

A gamut of games

In a publication called Health e-Games Market Report: How Video Games, Social Media and Virtual Worlds are Revolutionizing Health, Goldstein’s firm identified five major areas of health e-gaming—exergaming, brain fitness, healthy eating, condition management, and professional training-focused video games.

Exergames require physical activity and include motivation and virtual coaching.
Nintendo’s Wii Fit is a virtual trainer consisting of a motion-sensor Balance Board and software program that helps you correctly perform exercise routines and tracks your progress. A 3D virtual trainer demonstrates activities from various angles so you fully understand correct body position and movements.

Brain fitness games are designed to exercise and improve cognitive function. Nintendo’s Brain Age is the most popular product in this category. Brain Age and Brain Age 2 are designed to stimulate cognitive function, reasoning and memory. According to Nintendo, research has shown that after performing the activities in these games, subjects scored better on memory tests, and patients with cognitive impairment showed improved functioning of the prefrontal cortex.

Posit Science develops clinically validated, computer-based programs including Brain Fitness and InSight that target Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia as well as general memory and mental processing. A study of 487 healthy people ages 65 to 93 showed that the brains of Posit Science users processed information more than twice as fast as those of a control group, and the users showed improvement on several standard measures of memory.

Most healthy eating games are aimed at children and designed to improve knowledge and behavior related to nutrition and weight management. Many are offered online for free.
The Amazing Food Detective is an online program that delivers messages to children on how to eat right and exercise. Launched by Kaiser Permanente, it has been distributed to more than 5,000 schools and has won numerous awards.

Condition management games include pediatric asthma games like Quest for the Code from the Starbright Foundation and a number of health e-games targeting obesity and diabetes underwritten by government or nonprofit agencies. Archimage developed Escape from Diab and Nanoswarm: Invasion from Inner Space, which focus on healthy eating and exercise.

Professional games like Pulse!! are helping to train medical students through virtual training simulations.

For more information about e-games, visit www.gaming4health.com,  a community and social network for anyone who wants to improve health and fitness through electronic or physically active gaming.