The myth of the out-of-shape gamer is slowly being busted. At the highest levels, professional gamers have fitness regimens and nutrition programs to keep them ready to perform. Now, a review of scientific papers focused on gamer health reveals that even amateur gamers may be suffering from an unhealthy stereotype with little data to back it up.
After reviewing 20 studies that investigated the relationship between video games and obesity, a paper published June 9 in Social Science and Medicine reports two key findings. In children and teenagers, there was no significant correlation between gaming behavior and body mass. In adults, there was a small but noteworthy association between the two. But only 1 percent of adult gamers’ extra weight could be attributed to the time they spent gaming, reports psychologist and lead study author Markus Appel, Ph.D., of Germany’s University of Würzberg.
“The chubby gamer stereotype is a stereotype with a very small or no kernel of truth for kids or adolescents,” Appel tells Inverse. “We found a small but reliable association for adults.”
The relationship between video games and obesity stems from more than just South Park episodes and word of mouth. For instance, a 2009 paper published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine used data from 562 adults from the Seattle area to show that gaming was associated with higher BMI in men. And though that paper generated backlash from gamers eager to tell the world how happy and fit they were, Appel notes that the stereotype still persisted even in medical literature.
“This connection is a truism that many people — not all — took for granted,” he adds.
In his new paper, Appel rounded up 20 studies (encompassing 38,097 people) and excluded studies that grouped other types of screen-based activities like watching TV from his analysis. Overall, he found that there was an association between higher body mass and video gaming, but that it was only significant in adults, not teens, and it was very small at that.
He is adamant that his review effectively busts the “fat gamer” myth. But it doesn’t totally destroy the concept that gaming and BMI may be tied somehow, given the small but significant effect in adults. One idea behind that connection is that there may be a a tradeoff between gaming and physical activity: Adults could be choosing video games over exercise.
In a followup analysis Appel’s team observed that people who spent more time playing video games exercised less and had higher body mass, suggesting that this may be a valid hypothesis. But in the paper they only refer to that finding as a “hint” to a possible effect that video games may have on exercise habits, not a full-blown explanation.
Appel adds that it could just be evidence of a vicious cycle at work.
“The association is likely a function of both activity choice (higher body mass individuals prefer sedentary activities) and a sedentary activity effect (sitting and gaming can initiate disturbed sleep patterns and lower activity, hence higher body mass),” he says.
As research proceeds, that connection might become more apparent, but Appel’s most recent results are a big hit to gamer stereotypes. For now, the relationship between video games and body weight is weaker than it might seem.
Method: Published and unpublished studies were identified through keyword searches in different databases and references in relevant reports were inspected for further studies. We present a random-effects, three-level meta-analysis based on 20 studies (total N = 38,097) with 32 effect sizes.
Results: The analyses revealed a small positive relationship between non-active video game use and body mass, , 95% CI [0.03, 0.14], indicating that they shared less than 1% in variance. The studies showed significant heterogeneity, Q (31) = 593.03, p < .001, I2 = 95.13. Moderator analyses revealed that the relationship was more pronounced for adults, , 95% CI [0.04, 0.40], as compared to adolescents, , 95% CI [-0.21, 0.23], or children, , 95% CI [-0.07, 0.25]. MASEM found little evidence for a displacement of physical activity through time spent on video gaming.
Conclusion: These results do not corroborate the assumption of a strong link between video gaming and body mass as respective associations are small and primarily observed among adults.