The Games for Health study came out of that frantic need to address West Virginia's childhood obesity crisis, but only serendipitously did it include DDR. While shopping at the mall one day, Dr. Linda Carson, director of WVU's Motor Development Center, had noticed a small crowd of kids playing DDR in an arcade. To her delight, she saw the children dancing, sweating and even drinking water instead of soda. The sight intrigued her, and together with PEIA's Nidia Henderson, she designed a research project to assess just how much kids could benefit from regularly playing the game.
The first rounds of testing for the Games for Health project opened in April 2004, and initially, the study was only available to the children of PEIA members. When Tammy heard about the study, she knew she wanted Ryan involved. "My son is one of those kids who loves videogames," she says. "But when they said that he'd actually have to move his feet, and he couldn't just sit there and play, we really wanted him to do it."
For Ryan's initial health assessment, Tammy and her husband drove their son to the university's campus in Morgantown, over two and a half hours from their home. "We even drove it in a snowstorm," she says. "That's how serious we were about him doing this study."
Once there, Ryan underwent a series of clinical tests to determine his body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin and glucose levels, as well as his endurance and aerobic capacity. Researchers also examined the arteries in his arms to evaluate his endothelial functioning, or how well his blood vessels expanded in response to increased blood flow (like with exercise). Endothelial dysfunction is thought to be a major initiating cause in both heart disease and diabetes, and of the 35 kids in the study who had theirs tested, every single one exhibited at least some arterial dysfunction at the start.
After the tests, Ryan's family was given a game console, a dance mat and a copy of DDR Extreme (funded from the initial $50,000 grant from PEIA). Under the study, Ryan played DDR for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, while logging which songs he played and when. In addition, he wore a pedometer to keep track of his daily steps, making a note of any other physical and sedentary activities he participated in. "We had to write down pretty much everything he did from the time he woke up to the time he went to bed, and send it in each week," says Tammy. To help keep Ryan motivated, a clinician from WVU would call Ryan weekly, asking about his progress and giving him plenty of encouragement.
Not that he needed it, at least in the beginning. The first night of the study, after they got home, Ryan says he fired up the game and danced 31 songs in a row. "That was pretty crazy that first night," he says. "It was fun. Well, until basically I was dying."
In February 2007, WVU released preliminary results from the study, announcing that in just 12 weeks, the test kids had significantly improved their overall fitness level and endothelial functioning. Better yet, on average the test group hadn't gained any weight, unlike the control group, which had gained an average of six pounds over the three month period.
Most importantly, however, the study found the test kids' self-esteem had dramatically increased, making them more likely to try other forms of physical activity. "DDR was kind of a gateway," says Murphy. "[The kids] mastered something, so they felt good about themselves. And then they're more willing to go try out for the cross country team or the basketball team or other sports."
In addition to losing about 10 or 15 pounds on the program, Ryan's good cholesterol shot up 21 points, and his endurance improved by 25 percent. Plus, he's only needed to use his inhaler once or twice in nine months since he started the study. But Tammy says the biggest change has been in Ryan's demeanor. "Before, he didn't really want to go to kids' houses and play or spend the night," she says. "He couldn't keep up with the other kids. But now, I can't even keep up with him half the time. He's spending the night with friends, or passing the football with his dad at night, or riding his bike, or playing basketball. This change, it's - it's just amazing."