Recess meets its match in PAEL

What do exercise and video games have in common? For the researchers working in the School of Kinesiology’s Physical Activity Epidemiology Laboratory (PAEL), the answer is a lot.


Prompted by increasing childhood obesity rates, PAEL researchers, led by lab director and associate professor Zan Gao, PhD, brought active video games in their most recent study to local underserved preschools to test something called exergaming.

Exergaming is the activity of playing video games that involve physical exertion and are thought of as a form of exercise. Gao and his team of PAEL researchers were investigating a question, what would happen if preschoolers played exergames to encourage movement and physical activity? They looked at things like motor skill competence and physical activity levels after exergaming, and the effects of exergaming on children’s activity levels.

To complete their study, PAEL utilized two of their three exergaming laboratories at various elementary schools in the Twin Cities area. Each of these laboratories uses hands-on equipment such as Xbox Kinect, Dance Dance Revolution, Wii and more. The final product of their research, “Effects of exergaming on motor skill competence, perceived competence, and physical activity in preschool children,” found that exergaming promotes exercise in a fun and innovative way. Additionally, it pulls in other research, confirming that the early education years are “a crucial time to promote healthy lifestyle habits, which could assist in the prevention of obesity and chronic diseases as children age.”

“It is truly important for children, including young children, to be physically active on a daily basis,” says Gao.

Exergaming is not solely aimed at children. PAEL lab assistants are currently studying the physiological and psychological outcomes of college students after virtual reality game sessions. They are discovering that students enjoy exergaming more than the traditional treadmill and perceive it as a less extering form of exercise. Stay tuned for their next research publication, which will analyze the effect of virtual reality and exergaming games on college students’ exercise intensity levels, mental health, and wellness.

“Our philosophy is that we’d like youth to continue with their traditional sports and outdoor activities, but use active screen time to replace sedentary screen time,” Gao explains.


PAEL, with its home in the College of Education and Human Development’s School of Kinesiology, aims to enhance the quality of human life through physical activity and research. Located in Williamson Hall, on the U of M’s East Bank Campus, PAEL uses specialized equipment to analyze how interactive technology—such as video games, virtual reality, and digital applications—can supplement traditional physical activity for children and adults across the United States. As technology advances and evolves, PAEL adapts and applies different research methods to obtain better physical and psychosocial results, and help populations better improve their overall health.


To learn about PAEL research projects, visit

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