By Dan Lawler, Ph.D.
Obesity is a health crisis in the United States, as well as in many other countries around the world. On average, an obese person in the U.S. will cost society over $6,000 a year in loss of productivity and medical treatment. There are many experts and organizations in this country dedicated to changing this national trend, but, unfortunately, many of these efforts have been unsuccessful. Even Michelle Obama has made lowering childhood obesity rates a central issue in her efforts as First Lady.
As an elementary principal, I often reflect on another health crisis that peaked years ago in our country. What I observed was the impact schools had on educating youth on the negative effects of using tobacco. Often parents would say that their children would come home and put pressure on them to stop smoking. Students were equipped with the knowledge and consequences smoking had on a person’s health and life expectancy. Can we have the same effect on our youth if we educate them about the ramifications of obesity and the ways to prevent this condition?
How do we do that? First it is important to create an environment in the schools that fosters healthy eating and life styles. Kids, like all of us, are influenced greatly by their environment – eating habits of their friends and those around them, what foods are available, strategic marketing in the food industry, and how much opportunity they have to move around. While making an environment healthy is a very doable task, schools are currently so focused on high-stakes testing and academic results that this is usually neglected. Consequently, the desired effects are never realized and our kids suffer. What is ironic is that schools keep ignoring ways to build this environment when, in fact, it would actually support their primary mission of educating children!
As David Freedman notes in his article, “How to Fix the Obesity Crisis” in the February 2011 issue of Scientific American, (what is needed is) “… to reconfigure the school environment into one in which our needs for information, gratification, and social encouragement are tapped to pull us toward healthy food and exercise choices rather than away from them.”
Right now food is the source of reward for too many students. Schools inadvertently encourage and enable this method of motivation. For example, too often teachers reward positive behavior with candy and treats. What we need to do is change the reward from food to fun exercise. Both the choices of food and exercise release the same chemicals (principally dopamine) that activate the limbic system which is the reward system in our brain. What we need to do is shift our primary source of getting these feelings of satisfaction – from food to exercise. One of the best ways to do that is through ExerGaming.
ExerGaming uses technology to motivate students to exercise while playing high-interest video games. Exercise increases dopamine (as well as other neurotransmitters involved with the attention system), and ExerGaming provides the novelty and reward to sustain the exercise. It is an incredibly powerful motivator and intervention. My former school introduced a full 28 station ExerGaming lab, and I have never seen youth so excited about working out. The lab created a high level of motivation because kids found it fun and exciting. Exercise was rewarding.
ExerGaming can help kids become more active. In a recent study done by Dr. Ralph Madison at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, ExerGaming showed a positive effect on reducing body mass index (BMI). “The study findings show that this technology has the potential to be a useful addition to a raft of health interventions. It could have significant implications for how health professionals combat the obesity epidemic…”
One of the best examples is the work that has been done in Naperville, Illinois, District 203. Years ago, school physical education teachers lead a shift in emphasis from a sports-skills model to a more fitness-based model. District 203, even then, had a vision of building the environment to which Dr. Freedman refers. Has their model worked to counter the obesity crisis that currently has a grip on our society? They have actually reduced their obesity and overweight rate far below the national average. Coincidently, this effort has enhanced their academic achievement as well as assisted in developing healthier life styles for their students. They are also another example of a school that integrated ExerGaming into their curriculum to add another strategy to help reach and motivate youth.
ExerGaming is an important part of creating a more inviting choice for kids. It provides as a great substitute for food with a much healthier outcome. Kids find ExerGaming fun and are more likely to sustain their exercise habits into the future. Many physical education teachers, health-care specialists, physicians, and others are trying to change the trend of obesity in our country. Many interventions are attempting to make a difference and some are actually being successful. Fortunately, we now have another alternative to combating this national crisis: It is called fun exercise through ExerGaming®! Is it really that hard? How about we educate our youth, inspire them, and make exercise fun and engaging? Let’s start using the tools we have at our disposal. Let’s Get Moving!
Dan Lawler, Ph.D., is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of movement-based learning. He has 34 years experience as an elementary school principal. His school leadership was consistently based on leading-edge research and best practices in education. Most recently, he spent seven years changing a school’s culture by developing and branding his school as a center of “academics, character and wellness.” He initiated multiple wellness-and movement-based learning initiatives, including a first-of-its-kind exercise 4 learning center that improved students’ academic performance and behavior.
Lawler has a doctorate in school administration, along with training and certification as a superintendent. He has received wide-ranging accolades for this initiative and his leadership positively impacted the school’s students, staff and parents.