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In this review of recent research, I provide tentative evidence that playing physically active video games (commonly called ‘exergames’) has positive benefits to children’s physical and cognitive health, and I provide a model linking these two types of benefits. The hope is that this review provides a path forward for future research in order to better understand the interrelations among physical activity and cognitive functioning.

Globally, childhood obesity has increased dramatically over the past 3 to 4 decades. The proliferation of sedentary video games is likely partially to blame because time spent playing video games replaces time spent being physically active. An increase in sedentary activity has repercussions for physical health as well as for cognitive health. Exergaming, however, offers a platform for children to be physically active while also playing highly engaging interactive games.

I focused the review on recent experimental studies—i.e., studies that provide exergaming to children and compare those effects to some form of control activity—which can provide stronger evidence for the effects of exergames than studies that correlate reports of exergame use with other variables of interest. In terms of the effects on physical health, there is evidence that certain exergames elicit moderate-to-vigorous physical activity when played appropriately; however, the problem is that use of these games often wanes over time, and there is little evidence that providing children with exergaming equipment leads to significant weight loss and to increased physical activity over the long run. In terms of effects on cognitive functioning, there is evidence that exergames can enhance performance on tasks that require executive functions—i.e., the cognitive functions required for planning and self-control—in comparison to engaging in sedentary activities. Indeed, it may be that certain types of exergames, e.g., those that are especially cognitively challenging, may have stronger positive impacts on cognition than others. Unfortunately, studies on cognitive functioning are sparse.

After reviewing these studies, I propose that the effects on physical and cognitive health may be interrelated, such that the effects on physical health may lead to improvements in cognition, manifested by better decision-making and future-oriented thinking, which in turn, may lead to further engagement in physical activity. Given that these effects seem to be interrelated, I suggest that future research studies on exergaming will benefit from collaborations among psychologists, kinesiologists, behavioural medical researchers, and game designers.

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