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Graduate student David Kemble (standing) monitors heart rate as volunteer Stuart Hager plays interactive video games. The activity is part of research under way by ECU exercise scientist Matt Mahar. (Photo by Erica Plouffe Lazure)

Heart Rates and Gaming Studied

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

It’s not every day that Stuart Hager gets a chance to try out the latest Playstation II video games: Grand Turismo II, Moto Racer, and Dance Dance Revolution.

“He loves video games, but he doesn’t play them at home,” said his mother, Mary Farwell, an ECU professor of biology.

“We feel it’s too passive; you have to be active in order to do these kinds of games; I like that idea.”

Hager 13, of Greenville, is one of a half-dozen boys participating in a new study at ECU that measures the physical exertion of interactive video games.

“Kids are less active now than they used to be and we wanted to find out why, and also how to get kids to be more physically active,” said Matt Mahar, an ECU exercise scientist. The growing popularity of video games, coupled with the increasing numbers of overweight children in the United States, has prompted some companies to create video games that require physical exertion, said Mahar.

“Video game companies are making more interactive games. If they’re being used, we want to see how many calories kids are actually expending when they use them,” Mahar said.

The study will measure participants’ heart rate variability in an attempt to gauge levels of engagement and physical exertion. The subjects, boys ages 12 to 16, are asked to play six different video games on a Playstation II while they are hooked up to a device that monitors heart rate variability.

“It’s something that needs to be looked at. If we find there is a big difference in caloric expenditure with kids who use a game like Dance Dance Revolution, versus an inactive game, then maybe recreation centers would have more of them available,” he said. Mahar is working on the study with David Kemble, a graduate student in ECU’s exercise and sport management program. They are still looking for participants.

“Boys these days tend to play more video games. And we’re seeing a decrease in activity in this age range as well,” Kemble said.

So far, about a half-dozen boys have participated in the study. Signing up for the study requires a participant to visit the Activity Promotion Lab at Minges Coliseum twice, usually after school or on weekends. On the first visit, they are measured for “resting energy” levels and are introduced to the video games.

“Some have not played these games before and I wanted them to be familiar with them beforehand,” Kemble said. Having fun, he said, is key.

“If you’re frustrated with the game because you can’t play it, it can change everything,” he said. “The more variability in the heart rate, the more engaged a person is,” he said. “You can’t overestimate the importance of fun.”

During the second session, the participant is hooked up to the monitor and his heart rate variability is tracked as he plays the games.

Participants play a bicycle/motocross game called Moto Racer, a set of sports games called Play 2 and a dancing game called Dance Dance Revolution. They also play games that do not require physical activity such as Grand Turismo IV, Star Wars Battlefront II and Madden 2005.

One afternoon in March, Stuart was on his game. With a breathing apparatus strapped onto his back and around his face, he plays each game, switching from stationary Cycle FX bicycle for Moto Racer to a step-sensor pad for Dance Dance Revolution. The boxing game, Knockout, tracks his moves as he attempts to knock out a competitor. Kemble stays nearby, making sure the cord remains hooked to the computer. After each game, Stuart is asked to gauge his level of interest and exertion.

Farwell said that her son’s participation in this study seems to mix his interest in video games with her interest in scientific research.

“To me, as a scientist, it’s important that Stuart realizes that science is used in all sorts of ways,” she said.

Mahar said the aim of the study is to determine strategies that would help curb the growing childhood obesity problem in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, the number of overweight children has doubled and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled since 1980. The latest findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey report that a third of children in the United States — approximately 25 million — are overweight or on the brink of becoming so.

“We need data to tell us what is the caloric expenditure of the games,” he said. “If it’s fun and beneficial, maybe it could make a dent in the obesity problem with children,” he said. “If we don’t do something dramatic soon, half of the kids in the United States will be obese.”

The study is ongoing. Those interested in participating can contact Mahar at 328-0008, or email Kemble at

This page originally appeared in the April 17, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at