Public health’s questionable endorsement of video games

148381238_b5d78fbf19_oHave the public health watchdogs finally thrown in the towel when it comes to natural, vigorous exercise? A recent deal between the American Heart Association – that former bulwark of public health protections – and the video game company Nintendo might lead one to think so. Last week the American Heart Association announced its endorsement of several Nintendo video games – a deal worth $1.5 million. The heart association’s seal of approval now will appear on a series of Nintendo games that are intended to get people off the couch and if not outside at least on the living room rug engaging in something other than changing channels.

This is a first for public health. It also is perhaps the most clear statement yet of how out of touch Americans have become with true fitness. The heart association appears to be shifting its public health focus away from traditional outdoor or gym activities and has acknowledged the concept of E-exercise. But why only Nintendo? Other companies have produced exercise-oriented video games – which some proponents say actually provide better workouts than the Nintendo games – but have failed to snag the coveted American Heart Association’s public health seal of approval. One is left to assume those companies failed to cough up $1.5 million.

There’s certainly some truth to AHA claims that traditional appeals to get American adults and youth off the couch and exercising simply aren’t working. Obesity rates continue to rise, along with companions diabetes and heart disease. But is endorsing an exercise-based video game a reasonable compromise of principle or a can’t beat ‘em, so join ‘em defeat? For example, why did the American Health Association feel compelled to go as far as an official endorsement?  Why not just put out a press release reminding Americans that any exercise – even E-exercise – is better than none?

Any exercise is indeed better than none. But it does need to count as exercise. Ask anyone who owns the Nintendo games in question and you’ll learn how easy it is to “cheat” the system – manipulate your wrist and you’ll achieve unearned fitness gains, at least according to the gaming system’s tracking mechanism. Of course, it’s also easy to cheat at traditional exercise, as well, and you don’t get full benefits without proper form when it comes to many exercises.

Yet unless the Nintendo systems seriously beef up their game, it’s doubtful that anything on a video screen can come close to matching the health benefits of real exercise. The question is, will the American Heart Association find, over the long run, that it has done more harm than good when people overestimate the health benefits of video games and replace what little outdoor fitness they get with the video games? The American Heart Association carries a lot of weight with people, who look to the public health organization for guidance and who make fitness decisions based on the organization’s platforms and endorsements. And if it is determined down the road that the partnership has done more harm than good, will the American Heart Association have the courage to end its relationship with the video game for the sake of public health? It’ll be interesting to find out.

Photo Credit: Hachimaki