Healthy video games tackle Memphis' childhood obesity crisis

Fitnexx, a Memphis-based developer of virtual reality games to inspire kids to exercise, makes activity accessible and fun. 

Webb Smith, a clinical exercise physiologist with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, says that video games contribute to Memphis’ staggering youth obesity rate.

Still, he’s working towards the day when he can prescribe video games to his clients.

“We’re using some emerging technology to create an active game that takes advantage of the strong points of video games. They’re compelling. They pull kids in,” he said.

Smith is a consultant in the development of Fitnexx, which may be the first healthy video game. Kids can do jumping jacks through colorful scenery and unlock new levels by moving their bodies and staying active.

Tony Knox, founder of Memphis-based Fitnexx, said that school physical education programs are a natural fit for the product.  The camera device, which only costs around $100, can monitor up to 60 students at a time.

Knox said he’s trying to rewire the negative perception that many kids may have of exercise.

Tony Knox, founder of Fitnexx, wants to make education fun and accessible by promoting active video games.

“You know, it’s like saying let’s go to the doctor and get a shot when you tell them they need to go outside and exercise,” he said.

Knox’s background puts him at both the edge of healthcare and education. His parents were both teachers, and he always believed he would work within the education system. He was also a former athlete and a personal trainer.

Surrounding him are the conditions of Memphis, a city where nearly 20 percent of children between 10 and 17 are obese.

Smith said those conditions are not helped by Memphis’ issues with poor public transportation, poverty and safety. And while Fitnexx doesn’t solve any of those issues, Smith believes the program can be used to treat childhood obesity in families that face difficult circumstances.

The program, which is portable and affordable, can be used within the home as well as the classroom. Smith describes it as having a doctor’s visit within the comfort of your home. The device measures activity and can send it straight to a physician’s office.

For patients who have a hard time accessing a gym or healthcare facility, Fitnexx can help them stay on top of their fitness goals.

Tony Knox, founder of Fitnexx, at graduation for Propel, an accelerator for existing minority and women-owned businesses.

“When we think of behavioral intervention, we have a good idea of what will work if we can get families to do it,” said Smith, who is testing Fitnexx with his patients to aid the program’s development. “What we have to do now is address the barriers and often that's travel. This is a tool that can help us solve some of that.”

Smith said that Memphis’ location as a healthcare hub means that he sees patients from the tri-state area. The distance his patients have to travel has proven to be a limitation of Smith’s care.

“(Fitnexx) puts a small piece of Webb Smith into the homes of his patients. It makes the interventions more effective,” explained Knox.

Smith said that many of his local clients live in unsafe neighborhoods, which is a deterrent to getting outside and staying active.

Fitnexx game levels can be unlocked by completing fitness goals.“We suggest go for a walk, and they say that it's not safe for them to do that,” he said. “Of course, that’s something we want everyone to be able to do, but a system like this can provide an activity they enjoy doing within the safety of their home.”

Knox has been developing Fitnexx for the past four years, but his product really picked up steam when he went through the Seed Hatchery accelerator program housed at Start Co. Since graduating from the program in 2016, Knox has secured partnerships with local Memphis charter schools and national insurance companies, who are considering Fitnexx as a remote monitoring tool for healthcare purposes. 

Knox also completed in the inaugural class of Propel, an accelerator for existing businesses facilitated by Start Co. and backed by the City of Memphis Office of Business Diversity & Compliance.

Initial funding has come from Knox’s personal clients and Seed Hatchery. A research grant has supported the study completed with Smith through Le Bonheur’s Pediatric Obesity Program.

“Preliminary results show that (Fitnexx) is equivalent to a full exercise session,” said Smith.” Prescribing it to clients is on the horizon sooner rather than later.”

Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.