West Virginia schools use dance video game in gym class 

West Virginia schools use dance video game in gym class

Video Game Tester
When a series of arrows began scrolling over the screen, Rashaun moved faster, his white sneakers flashing as he tapped corresponding marks on the neon-hued mat beneath his feet. Faster and faster, the eight-grader stomped, forward, backward, side to side, to keep up with the beat and the constantly changing cues on the screen.

Rashaun whooped when the word "Perfect" flashed on the screen. He'd gotten all the steps right and burned off quite a few calories in a session that transported the moves and sounds of a hip dance club to his school gym.

"I thought I messed up on that one," he said, grinning and grooving anew to "I Will Survive."

"Hopefully, I'll do better this time."

That kind of enthusiasm is the inspiration for a physical education program that spurs children to dance up a sweat and will be in use in all public schools in West Virginia within two years.

The program uses the video game Dance Dance Revolution to combat childhood obesity in a state which consistently ranks among the nation's highest in rates of obesity and related ailments. West Virginia was No. 1 for hypertension, No. 3 for obesity and No. 4 for diabetes in recent rankings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State education and health officials say they already have seen positive results. Dr. Linda Carson, the Ware Distinguished Professor in West Virginia University's School of Physical Education and a designer of the program, plans to present preliminary findings this week at a conference on obesity at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

After trying a pilot program in 20 schools last year, state and WVU officials and the game's maker announced in January that they would expand the Dance Dance Revolution program to all of West Virginia's 753 public schools. They trained teachers, then, this spring, introduced the program in about 150 middle schools, targeting students who are maturing and developing lifestyle habits.

"Schools are pushing to educate kids who have been born and raised in 21st-century environments," said Melanie Purkey, executive director of student services and health promotion for the West Virginia Department of Education. "This is getting kids physically active in a context that they respond to."

Manufactured by video game giant Konami Digital Entertainment Inc., of Redwood City, Calif., Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR, was released in the 1990s as an arcade game and quickly became a hit with teens and younger children.

Konami has sold more than 3 million copies in the United States since 2001, when it began releasing versions of the fast-paced, infectious game for home console systems.

Players slip the game disc into their console, then stand on a checkerboard-marked dance pad. Music plays and directional arrows appear on the screen, prompting players to step on the matching marks.

Players who hit their dance-move marks in one song are permitted to move on to another song, or level. Difficulty, speed and complexity of dance routines increase as they progress.

Konami has released several DDR versions for console systems which contain sound-alike remixes of recent radio and club hits. Workout modes allow players to calculate how many calories they've burned while dancing.

"People think if you're getting out and running, you're getting more exercise. But this is a way to get as much exercise and have more fun," said seventh-grader Kathryn Baker, 13, who, like Rashaun, attends Suncrest Middle School in Morgantown. "It sure does take the breath out of you."

Suncrest's 450 pupils began using DDR last year as part of the state's pilot program. Physical education teacher and football coach Eric Skolny supports its inclusion in a mix of sports and fitness activities, saying it provides a good cardiovascular workout and builds endurance.

"If I were to make them run laps, you know some of them would [grumble]," he said. "But in a 45-minute [DDR] class, they can put in a mile and a half and some will do enough steps for two miles."

Because its levels range from beginner to intense, DDR appeals to children who are not gifted athletes or who balk at participating in team sports and traditional gym classes, Mr. Skolny said.

"It's a really great thing for kids at all different levels," he said. "They can be successful at it, and with success comes enjoyment."

Rashaun, a slim, self-described "basketballaholic" and member of the school football team, said he wouldn't have tried DDR if he hadn't discovered it in school. But he loves to play video games and he's discovered that DDR has boosted his coordination and reactions.

"I have a lot of energy and I have to find a way to get it out," he said. "I love to dance and I love this."

The program evolved after Dr. Carson spotted teens standing in line at a DDR arcade machine in a Chambersburg, Pa., mall in 2004.

"There were many other games in this arcade, but this one required them to move their bodies," she said. "They were sweating, they were drinking water. It was the light-bulb moment for me."

Dr. Carson watched for hours, then contacted West Virginia's Public Employees Insurance Agency, one of the state's largest health-care providers. To her surprise, she learned that Nidia Henderson, PEIA's wellness director, also had learned about DDR from a friend's child and was mulling its introduction to West Virginia children.

They worked together to develop a research project that introduced DDR to children of PEIA insurees who met criteria for being obese or overweight and at risk for related diseases. Children received game equipment and a regimen in which they recorded the time they spent on workout and dance routines in their homes, then were tested again after 12-week periods.

Dr. Carson and co-investigator Emily Murphy, a doctoral student in exercise physiology at WVU's school of medicine, are still analyzing data from that study, but she said early results are "just stunning."

That success prompted organizers to propose the 20-school pilot program, which attracted national attention and support and funding from Konami and insurers Mountain State Blue Cross Blue Shield and Accordia Health Care for the statewide school program. Other schools across the country, including several in Pennsylvania, are considering or have introduced DDR.

West Virginia's program requires formation of school DDR clubs which will compete to further a "culture of physical activity," Dr. Carson said. WVU researchers will track pupils' health and school performance and will publish their findings.

Each school game system, which requires a game console and Cobalt Flux dance pads, which are more durable than plastic commercial models, costs about $1,200. But Ms. Purkey said that amount might decrease with bulk purchases.

Program organizers acknowledge that video games often are blamed for encouraging sedentary habits and obesity. But how better to counter that problem, they suggest, than to convert a cause to a cure?

"What's so beautiful about this is that it's an excellent cardio workout," Ms. Henderson said.

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