It's hard not to immediately like Ryan Walker. The cheerful, talkative sixth grader from Martinsburg, West Virginia crackles with prepubescent confidence and easy charm, especially when you get him talking about his favorite pastimes, basketball and videogames. In particular, he has a special fondness for Konami's Dance Dance Revolution (DDR).
"People give me a lot of compliments on how well I can do it," he boasts. "I can beat everybody. I hate to say it, but, well, you know."
Ryan's confidence, however, is a relatively new development. For years, the 11-year-old boy struggled with his weight; just nine months ago, he was close to 170 lbs (the healthy weight for a 6-foot adult male). He'd even developed activity-induced asthma. "Running, riding his bike, he'd get those red little cheeks," says his mother, Tammy. "He was out of breath a lot, and he couldn't run up steps or jog around the neighborhood." Tammy, whose own father had died at 47 from heart disease, feared her son might soon fall prey to her family's long history with cardiovascular problems and diabetes.
But then Ryan found DDR. Or, more accurately, DDR found him.
Ryan was one of 50 overweight and obese children recruited for West Virginia University's (WVU) Games for Health research project, an at-home clinical study designed to assess how Konami's mega-popular rhythm game could be used to combat childhood obesity.
The preliminary results of the study, released earlier this year, were so compelling the Public Employee's Insurance Agency (PEIA; who had funded the project) partnered with Konami to deploy the dance game in each of West Virginia's 765 schools. But the Mountain State isn't alone in its DDR fervor. School boards in Los Angeles and Hawaii have announced similar plans to roll out the game in their gym classes, too.
DDR in the P.E. classroom is just one weapon in America's War on Fat, a struggle that, judging by the evidence, we appear to be losing. "We're this society that's overfed but undernourished," says Emily Murphy, doctoral candidate and pediatric exercise physiologist at WVU's School of Medicine. (The Games for Health project is her doctoral thesis.) According to the American Obesity Association, approximately 127 million Americans are overweight. Another 60 million are clinically obese. And it's not just adults battling the bulge, either; nationwide, 15 percent of all kids ages 6-19 classify as obese.
"As these kids get older, their problems are only going to get worse," says PEIA spokesman David Bailey. "This is actually one of the first generations with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. You have kids with coronary heart disease at 10 years old, who are more obese than a lot of adults you see." Rates of hypertension, asthma and cardiovascular dysfunction have skyrocketed among children in the past 30 years, and cases of Type II diabetes - once known as "adult" diabetes - have more than tripled; these days, one out of every three new Type II diabetics is a kid.
Children are particularly at risk in West Virginia, which was recently ranked by the Center for Disease Control as the number one state in the country for obesity. The Mountain State is like a microcosm of every pediatrician's worst fears. For example, the Coronary Artery Risk and Detection in Appalachian Communities survey, on which Murphy worked, found that nearly half - 48 percent - of the state's fifth graders were either overweight or at risk for developing heart disease in the future. Of the 40,832 kids screened, a full 25 percent were clinically obese.
Pundits, politicians and parents alike are quick to blame TV and videogames for their part in making our kids fat, and for good reason: Quality time with the PlayStation generally does not shrink waistlines. But it doesn't help that schools across the country have had to drop physical education classes due to budget constraints and stricter federal testing mandates. In West Virginia, most elementary school students attend physical education classes only once a week. High schoolers get just one semester of gym in all four years.
Making matters worse, West Virginia is one of the poorest, most rural states in the country, with almost two-thirds of its 1.8 million residents living in communities with fewer than 2,500 people. That remoteness and lack of infrastructure puts West Virginians at a major health disadvantage. "Sometimes exercise isn't as easy as just walking down your street, because people live in rural areas without sidewalks," says Bailey. "That lack of access to physical equipment, and the rural nature and topography, can really lend itself to physical inactivity."