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Not just fun and games

Australia can now claim top spot on the world obesity ladder. Young people are spending less time playing sport, street games and physically active recreation and more time in front of the screens. Moreover, the primary school curriculum is often so crowded physical education teachers cannot always deliver the required amount of weekly exercise.

Authorities are calling for more physical activity to combat the growing scourge of obesity. Resources are being provided to encourage children to get moving again. The main message is to get the couch potatoes out playing sport.

This is all well and good, but we might be missing something here. Computers are a growing and pervasive part of daily life, even more so for children and adolescents. For a new generation whose first language is a digital one, the messages that call for restraint on its use, or beckon them to traditional play and sport activities, are likely to be seen as old school.

We can and should continue to invest resources to convince young people of the health benefits of conventional fitness and sport activities. We should insist that physical education has a central place in the new national curriculum, and that it is resourced properly at the local school level. However, there is an alternative: promote fitness and health in and through the computer worlds inhabited by children and young people.

Unlike passive television viewing, video arcades and home computers offer up a range of interactive activities such as motor racing, football, skiing, boxing, basketball and other related sports. While the degree of physicality may be limited to keyboard or game pad dexterity, there is a growing number of computer games that are much more interactive and immersive. The current wave of computer games – Eye Toy, Eye Toy Kinetic and GameBike – offer fuller body immersion and greater interactivity.
These games, which can involve sustained dancing, martial arts, cycling or sporting movements, have the potential to deliver the type of fitness benefits needed to combat obesity.

The challenge is to shift the thinking about computer gaming from the realm of entertainment to that of education. Schools could play a prominent role in making participation in these physically interactive exercise and sport simulations accessible to a wider number of young people. Computer simulations are finding their way into areas such as building design, air-flight training, and medicine. So why not supplement the traditional physical education curriculum with computer sports, dance, martial arts and exercise programs?

The use of computer play to promote fitness and health could be taken further. It could even be integrated into conventional subject areas such as geography, biology or history. The future classroom may be a laboratory with 30 stationary bicycles and treadmills, each connected to a computer. A simulation of a geography excursion, for example, is projected through monitors mounted on each stationary bicycle or treadmill. As with a traditional geography excursion, there would be landforms, vegetation and land use to observe and analyse. However, in order to move their virtual alter egos through the virtual landscape, students cycle on the stationary bike or walk the treadmill.

Similarly, in biology, students would pedal their way through the veins and arteries of a virtual human body. In history, students would pedal through a virtual medieval carnival or virtual Kokoda Track. Students would learn to monitor heart rates and caloric expenditure in each session to ensure that they are exercising at an appropriate level. By tracking their fitness progress over the course of the school term, students would get a taste of exercise physiology in this high-tech, integrated curriculum.

Student timetables would be organised such that it would involve one 45 to 60 minute bicycle or treadmill interactive lesson of one sort or another per day. The integration of computer mediated fitness activity into several subject areas might invigorate the curriculum and help teachers meet the standards set for physical education. Who knows, the fitness activities introduced in this manner may carry over into active lifestyles outside the school.

The development of a computer game or simulation based curriculum on a scale that will deliver the fitness benefits to overcome childhood obesity would not be an easy task. It will require some innovative partnerships between government and computer game manufacturers in the private sector to provide the infrastructure, software and teacher training for it to become a reality. Considering the rising health costs of obesity, a computer-integrated approach to deliver educational outcomes and health benefits may deserve a closer look.

Dr Dennis Hemphill is an associate professor in sport ethics and head of the School of Sport and Exercise Science at Victoria University.

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