A majority of children and young adults — about 85 percent — do not meet current guidelines for physical activity, and this, along with a diet that too often features processed foods and sugar, are two reasons why obesity rates in children and teens are rising. One resource for helping kids get moving comes from an unexpected and often maligned place — kids’ smartphones. Study findings suggest online interventions that use digital technology, such as exergames and smartphone apps, could help young people get more exercise. Many of these apps have proven useful for keeping kids active during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Children and young adults really enjoy participating in exergames, digital exercise programs that are designed to be fun and motivate users, a team from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom found. The exergames improved participants’ attitudes about exercise and motivated them to be more active. The study’s findings could help health organizations and educators design online interventions to get young people moving.

“There is a real opportunity here for the PE profession to design meaningful and effective online exercise opportunities, as well as an opportunity to embed positive approaches to exercise and online games and apps at an early stage,” Victoria Goodyear, lead author of the study and a senior lecturer in the School of Sport, Exercise, and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement.

Exergames improved kids’ attitudes about exercise and motivated them to be more active.

The data from 26 studies focusing on children and young adults between five and 18 years old were analyzed. Roughly 70 percent of the studies reported that online games and apps increased physical activity and/or physical fitness and improved mental health and social development. Elementary school children particularly benefited.

The online interventions that successfully increased physical activity levels mostly involved gamification, using games to motivate users to meet their goals. Kids progressed through personalized levels of achievement and received individualized feedback on their progress. They were also given educational materials or counseling that encouraged them to be more physically active.

The results did not surprise Jonathon McKeever, a coauthor of the study and a doctoral student at the University of Birmingham. Gamification is intended to engage people by letting them have fun, and he believes that’s why the program was successful. “Technology helps differentiate the movement experience, and learners can choose challenges and monitor progress through incremental achievements.” The personalization possible with certain games also helps engage users.

Developing good exercise habits early will not only help prevent obesity in children and teens, it can spare them from a lifetime of weight problems. By making use of the technologies kids gravitate to anyway, exergames and online apps are good strategies to build activity into their days.

The study is published in Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy.