Play Video Games, Lose Weight?

If you’re hoping to lose weight, but can’t stand traditional workouts like jogging or aerobics, University of Houston computer science professor Ioannis Pavlidis says he’s developed a more entertaining way to exercise: the NEAT-o games.
NEAT-o, which stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, involves physical activity that isn’t conscious exercise but still burns calories and builds stronger, healthier bodies: activities like taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work, walking the dog an extra time each day or making trips to the copy machine more often.

Pavlidis and his research assistants, Yuichi Fujiki and Kostas Kazakos, have developed a way to translate all those little daily “non-exercises” into video games. Different games can be powered by different movements, from foot-tapping to running.

For example, in a race game that Pavlidis is testing, the more active the player is, the faster and farther the video-game avatar races around the track.

Still in the testing stage, NEAT-o games can be played on any hand-held personal digital assistant (PDA). Game players wear a lightweight sensor that detects their various movements, then transmits that motion data to the PDA wirelessly. Game action then moves in real-time in response to the player’s activities.

According to Pavlidis’ research, one computer science student who tested the game system lost 40 pounds in five months.

“We hope the games can increase physical activity, add a dosage of everyday fun and embed NEAT in the modern lifestyle,” Pavlidis said. “We expect an almost ‘addictive’ behavior resulting from this game, much like the habit of playing solitaire during breaks is an everyday ritual for many people. Because of the way we live today, people are sitting all the time, so moving more is always a good thing.”

In addition to the racing game, Pavlidis has added a NEAT-o version of Sudoko, the wildly popular numbers-based logic game that originated in Japan. The PDA version assigns players points based on their level of physical activity; the more points players accumulate, the more squares on the puzzle they are able to fill in.

The NEAT-o system also allows players to compete against multiple players via cell-phone connection. The games can run in the background all day, allowing players to collect points and advance play while they go about their daily routines at home or at work.

A large trial experiment on the NEAT-o games’ effectiveness is now under way at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The testing is being conducted by James Levine, a physician and expert on obesity who first coined the expression “NEAT” to describe mild activity that is not conscious exercise.

Pavlidis said he hopes a commercial version of the NEAT-o game system will be available to the public before the end of 2008. Meanwhile, would-be customers can check out images and videos from the experimental system at the University of Houston’s Computational Physiology Lab Website.

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