Health Researchers Take Interest in Dance Games

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Dance video games are attracting many teens to exercise. The most popular is called "Dance Dance Revolution," and health experts are trying to capitalize on the craze.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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MONTAGNE: Now our consumer health segment.

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MONTAGNE: Health researchers have taken an interest in dance video games that give kids a workout. The most popular is Dance Dance Revolution. Teen-agers meet up through an online club and hold competitions across the country. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

Unidentified Man: Yes, DDR. Select the site.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

Dance Dance Revolution is sort of like hopscotch on speed, and the kids who play the game at this arcade in Frederick, Maryland, stand out. Their rhythmic stomping sounds like a performance of the Irish troupe Riverdance. Two 12th-graders are pulling off these steps. Josh Clark(ph) wears high-tops and a black T-shirt. Dan Nailer(ph) is tall and lanky.

DAN NAILER: I've gotten so used to this game, nothing makes me really tired anymore at all. I can just keep going all day long, and I've lost a lot of weight and kept myself fit. So it's really a good thing.

AUBREY: Nailer has set the game to its hardest level tonight. His feet are dancing across a matrix of nine metal pads. He's tried to hit each pad as it lights up. The clues are on a video screen in front of him. A set of arrows move up the screen.

NAILER: Once I get to the top, right there is when you hit it. It's...

AUBREY: I see. So it's all about timing.

NAILER: Yeah, it's all about timing and rhythm and keeping your steady beat.

AUBREY: The electronic console keeps track of their scores. Tonight, Nailer is winning by a long shot.

NAILER: A few missed steps and you'll lose the tournament and you're out. It's really very competitive, as much as any other sport out there.

AUBREY: Nailer looks like he's competing against just one friend, but a small piece of technology he's brought with him tonight enables him to open up the Dance Dance Revolution competition to friends all over the country. It's a computer memory chip about the size of a stick of gum.

NAILER: And you just plug it in and it saves your name so you can compare your scores to other people's.

AUBREY: Tonight, Nailer has set up competitions with friends in North Carolina and California. He met them at DDR Freak, an online site that's become a sort of unofficial DDR league.

NAILER: It's fun to compete online. Like, we can send challenges to each other and say, `Try and beat this score,' or, `Let's see who can get this score first.'

AUBREY: Nailer and his friend Josh Clark call themselves techno geeks. They say they never excel at school sports.

JOSH CLARK: For me, I've always loved technology and I've always loved electronics and watching things work and messing around with new things. So this is--things like this are just right up my alley.

Mr. NAILER: I personally think it's the most innovative arcade game ever. We keep seeing the shooters. We keep seeing the racing games. You beat a shooting game, OK, you beat it. Do you really want to beat it again? You beat a racing game. You get all the way through it. It's not the same. You can keep going, but no one has actually beaten DDR. So there's always something to shoot for, and if you set your own challenges, you beat them, you set them again. It's just--you can always keep getting better, and it's fun to see that.

AUBREY: The craze over Dance Dance Revolution has some health researchers rethinking the criticism of video games. George Graham is one. He's a professor of kinesiology at Penn State, and he spent a lot of time studying how to get kids moving. He says the soapbox about let's just get kids riding bikes or playing baseball is ineffective.

Professor GEORGE GRAHAM (Penn State): Whether we like it or not, it's an era of cell phones, DVDs and that is the life of the 2005 youngster. And we kind of use the phrase at Penn State: If you can't beat them, join them.

AUBREY: Graham has done several studies evaluating what kind of workout DDR provides. In one, he recruited 60 kids to play Dance Dance Revolution at his local YMCA.

Prof. GRAHAM: All but two of them chose to play for the entire time, 45 minutes. Now when you think about exercise and you think about a workout, the average heart rate of these kids over those 45 minutes was 144 beats a minute, which is really getting your heart rate up in the target zone we'd like to see.

AUBREY: What Graham doesn't know is if the dance video craze can last or draw bigger numbers. The answer in part depends on how creative manufacturers get. Many new games can be played with home PCs. There's Spider Stomp for the younger set, In The Groove for teens who get tired of DDR and for teen-age girls a Britney Spears game.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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