Like many other 11-year-old boys, K.D. Jones loves sports. But at 5 feet, 175 pounds, he found his weight and his asthma an obstacle. His doctor wanted him to lose 50 pounds, and he is hoping a new health study using a video dance game will help him get down to 125 by the end of summer in time to play football.
Jones is one of 85 children in an at-home study trying the popular Dance Dance Revolution (search) video game to boost their activity. The study is being done by West Virginia's public employees insurance group in hopes it will lead to better health and lower costs.
Jones lost about 10 pounds by changing his diet. Now, after two weeks playing the game, he has lost another 10.
"I feel a lot better," he said. "It's a lot easier to play basketball now."
His enthusiasm has his mother, who also struggles with her weight, giving the game a try. "It's a lot of fun," Joyce Jones said. "But I can only do it about two times for every four times he does."
The West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency (search), which covers 215,000 state workers, teachers and their dependents, believes it is the first insurance provider to use the game to cut costs. Konami Digital Entertainment America, which distributes the Japanese game in the United States, knows of no other state or insurance agency using the game for its health benefits.
"Today's kids are tomorrow's members," said the insurance group's Nidia Henderson. "Obesity claims last year cost us $77 million. We have to curtail those costs."
The insurer is providing a game console, dance pad and software for the six-month, $60,000 study. West Virginia University (search) is providing the medical screenings and tracking results. The students, all children of PEIA-covered employees, are required to meet with researchers, play the game a prescribed amount of time, wear a pedometer and maintain a log. They get to keep the game software and pad.
So far, about a dozen kids have started playing the game. They will be re-evaluated after three months and again at the end of the study. PEIA is also funding part of a two-year pilot project with the state Education Department to put the game in 20 schools for use in physical education and health classes. They hope children who play it at school will get their parents to buy it for home use.
In West Virginia, almost 43 percent of the nearly 6,000 children screened for heart disease risk were considered overweight or obese; more than 25 percent were obese.
"We are in a crisis in terms of childhood obesity not only in West Virginia but in America," said Linda Carson, a professor in WVU's School of Physical Education who is coordinating the study.
Prescreening tests on the overweight children have already raised concerns. Researchers expected to find problems with blood pressure and cholesterol, but they also found that blood flow to the arteries was being disrupted. The condition can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
Researchers at Syracuse University in New York also have been looking at the potential for improved cardiovascular and physiological effects among children using the game. And at Penn State, researchers are studying how much energy children use playing games such as Dance Dance Revolution.
In West Virginia, Robrietta Lambert, a physical education teacher at Franklin Elementary in Pendleton County, believes she already knows what all the studies will find. She has been using the video game in her classes since last fall.
"It improves cardiovascular health as well as eye-hand coordination," Lambert said. "Kids who don't like other things bloom on this. If they don't like basketball, jumping rope or ball activities, they like this."
Players stand on a 3-foot square metal mat with an arrow on each side — pointing up, down, left and right. Arrows scroll up the television screen to the beat of more than 100 tunes chosen by the player. As an arrow moves across the screen, the player steps on the corresponding arrow on the platform. Hidden songs are uncovered as players improve their speed and scores.
Sounds easy enough, but throw in combinations of multiple arrows, add the quick speed at which veterans play, and the game is as challenging as an aerobics class. Most beginners are flushed in the face after one or two songs.
At Morgantown High School, one of the 20 pilot sites, curiosity about the flashing lights and upbeat music draws students inside Maxine Arbogast's health class. The game, which was first introduced as an arcade game in Japan, is attracting the sedentary and the seasoned athlete alike.
Senior Stephanie Bellman, 18, said she was already getting addicted after only a few days. "I like how it creates a good mood," she said. "Even when you mess up you laugh."