Gifts for our Grandparents: A Wii Fit?

Another terrific piece in Tara Parker Pope's “Well” column in today's New York Times penned by Gretchen Reynolds. As we at SALSA and CLEAR have been preaching for some time, game-based systems can be a superb addition to not only rehabilitation– but prevention and increased mobility and (most important) stability.

Phys Ed: Why Wii Fit Is Best for Grandparents


With the Christmas video-game-buying season in full swing, now seems the right time to ask, Are active video games being aimed, at least in part, at the wrong audience? Active video games refer, of course, to games that require you to be active. Often also called exergames, they include the Wii Fit, Dance Dance Revolution from Konami and the new Microsoft Xbox Kinect and Sony PlayStation Move systems, among others. Depending on the game, they exhort players to hop, wriggle, serve and volley, left-hook a virtual boxing opponent or, in some other fashion, move. The underlying premise of these games is that, unlike Madden NFL 11 or Super Street Fighter IV, playing them should improve people’s fitness and health.

Phys Ed

But the latest science suggests that that outcome, desirable as it may be, is rarely achieved by most players, particularly the young. In theory, active games should come close to replicating the energy demands and physiological benefits of playing the actual sports they imitate. But as most of us might guess, they don’t. Studies consistently have found that active video games, although they require more energy than simply watching television or playing passive video games, are not nearly as physically demanding as real sports and physical activities. A study published earlier this year in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that when adults “exergamed” in a metabolic chamber that precisely measured their energy expenditure, only 22 of the 68 active video games tested resulted in moderately intense exercise, similar to brisk walking. The vast majority were light-intensity activities, which burned few calories and raised heart rates only slightly. None of the games were as vigorous as a run or an actual tennis match, and few lasted long.

Another issue with exergames is that they do not contain images of viscera, explosions, chase scenes or aliens. Parents might applaud that. But many gamers do not. Several recent studies have found that young people often grow bored with exergaming. Three months into a recent six-month study of the effects of a dance game, for instance, only 2 of the 21 children participating were still using the game at least twice a week.

The import of these various findings is clear. “At this point, there is little scientific evidence to suggest that exergames can be used alone to meet current guidelines for physical activity in young people,” said Elaine Biddiss, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and co-author of a review article published this summer in The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine about children and active video gaming. Exergaming can be an adjunct to other activities, she and other experts say. It can be worthwhile if it replaces time sitting on the couch. But by themselves, active video games do not result in enough energy expenditure to keep children and teenagers fit.

But there may be another, unexpected group for whom exergaming might be extremely beneficial: grandparents. The number of research studies examining elderly exergame users remains small (as does the number of elderly exergamers). But the available results are provocative. A representative case study published last year found that an 89-year-old woman with a balance disorder and a history of falls significantly improved her scores on a series of balance tests after six sessions of Wii Bowling, an encouraging outcome given that, as the study authors point out, falls remain the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the elderly.

A broader study presented last month at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego produced similar results. For that experiment, researchers at Elon University in North Carolina recruited 11 healthy elderly volunteers (average age 75), and 15 undergraduates. The older group was, on the whole, notably healthy. Each lived on his or her own and exercised for about an hour a day. The young adults also were fit. The scientists asked both groups to complete several gaming sessions with the Wii Fit, receiving ready agreement. (There are worse ways to benefit science.)

The sessions began with balance tests, on either one or both legs. Everyone balanced well on two legs, but to the surprise of both subjects and scientists, the elderly volunteers “performed rather poorly” during the single-legged tests, said Caroline Ketcham, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Elon University and lead author of the study. “They thought they were in good shape and had good balance. It scared them a bit, frankly, to see how awful their balance really was.”

After only a few sessions with the Wii Fit, though, the older volunteers improved their balance scores significantly, lowering their supposed “Wii age” (a score assigned by the game system, based primarily on balance tests) by about eight years. The young people improved by only about one year. The results suggest, Dr. Ketcham wrote, “that older adults would greatly benefit from balance training in their daily routines, and Wii Fit is an affordable and effective tool to use in their homes.”

So perhaps we should consider redirecting those newly purchased Wii Fit or Kinect systems? Maybe we should be giving them to our parents, and having our children visit to set them up and stay to bowl or box with their grandparents.

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