If most people found out their doctor was spending a lot of time playing video games, they might get concerned. But when the doctor is psychiatrist Paul Ballas, it’s all part of the job.
Dr. Ballas is an adult and child psychiatrist in Pennsylvania, but he’s always had a special interest in video games, and specifically in how technology can work with human psychology to help people create healthy habits. His company, Tiro Enterprises, is “devoted to creating products and services that exist at the intersection of psychiatry and technology.” One of its main projects is rating video games for their level of physical activity, and seeing how these games can help people meet exercise goals.
“One of the great things about video games is that they create a state of mind called flow,” he explains. “Time becomes distorted, it slips by. Like when you’re reading a really incredible book. If you’re genuinely engaged, you forget how hard you’re working.” And that, he says, is very valuable to get people to start and stick with an exercise program.
In 2008 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the report Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
. Among its goals, that adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity each week. Dr. Ballas realized there was no reason why video games couldn’t be used to meet those guidelines. He developed a system (which he holds the patent for) to rate video games based on the intensity of physical exertion required to participate.
“Most kids are playing video games daily, and over half of adults are playing video games daily as well,” he says. “That’s where most sedentary activity is. I started working on my system, testing games for their level of physical intensity. At first I was testing a lot of the older games, and I was disappointed by many of them, A lot of them were fun, but you wouldn’t be able to substitute them for a physical activity like riding a bicycle or going to the gym.”
Then, toward the end of 2013 a more sophisticated version of Xbox called Xbox One with Kinect was released. And one of the programs was Xbox Fitness. “Up until then there had been exercise programs, but this was the first time that there were so many combined in one game,” says Dr. Ballas. “And Xbox Fitness had more different workouts, and more intense workouts by far, then anything I’d seen previously.”
Having always struggled with his own weight—and finding it difficult to fit regular outdoor activity or trips to the gym into his busy work schedule and family obligations--Dr. Ballas decided to try Xbox Fitness as his own new physical fitness regimen. The result was a weight loss of 60 pounds over 10 months, and then a book: The Doctor’s Guide to Xbox Fitness
, which rates over 40 Xbox Fitness workouts.
Just as important as the intensity of a workout, says Dr. Ballas, is how engaging it is. “Look at what you’re interested in and go from there,” he advises. “It has to be something that’s not boring, or it will very tough to motivate yourself to get off the couch and exercise. A great workout you’ll never do is not as good as an okay workout you’ll actually do.
"If you're going to work out every day for the rest of your life," he continues, "you also need to be as efficient about it as possible. Most experts recommend that people exercise at the beginning of the day, but for me—as a doctor, husband, father—my mornings are too chaotic for that. But at the end of the day things settle down, and video games are efficient because I don’t have to drive to the gym, get changed, drive home. Of course I’m exhausted at the end of the day, and I don’t have as much willpower. But it’s not 45 minutes of torture. One to five minutes of willpower is all I need, because after that I’m lost in the game and having fun, For me, a rowing machine or treadmill would be torture at the end of a busy day.”
For his latest project, Dr. Ballas tackled dance workouts. “Dancing has been very recognized as a way to enhance happiness," he explains. His new book, A Doctor’s Guide to Just Dance 2016,
rates the brand new version of the Just Dance video game (for PlayStation, Xbox and Wii) for the intensity of its workouts, too.
What’s next? Dr. Ballas’ new project involves virtual reality software. He says it’s too soon to describe it in detail, beyond the fact that it involves new technology and holograms.
Until then, The Doctor’s Guide to Xbox Fitness
is available as a Kindle edition on Amazon, and The Doctor’s Guide to Just Dance 2016
will be available on Cyber Monday--November 30th.