“Fun for the whole family!” That’s how entertainment and recreational products have been marketed for years, from board games to – more recently – computer-based virtual reality programs that encompass a variety of games and activities. And while kids and teens were often the driving forces behind the purchase of a gaming system, adults of all ages have become hooked on slalom skiing, wakeboarding, mountain climbing and much more... all in the comfort of their living rooms!
Virtual reality computer-based technology lets people interact with on-screen activities and objects that simulate the real world. Programs were originally created for entertainment but with the development of add-ons like remote controls that track arm movements and balance boards that monitor changes in the centre of balance (both used in Nintendo®’s Wii Fit system), “exergames” have the added benefit of encouraging physical activity in people of all ages (1). In recent years “exergames” have also been used as a rehabilitation tool for people with various disabilities (2) and there is growing interest in whether they can help improve balance in older adults, which in turn may help reduce falls and resulting injuries (3).
Accessible, enjoyable, safe – Wii-based exercise programs sound promising but are they really effective in improving balance control in seniors? A systematic review of 7 randomized controlled trials provides some answers (4). The studies involved 285 participants over the age of 55 (average age was 70). Those in the study groups participated in Wii exercise programs using a Wii balance board and/or the Wii remote and attended a minimum of 12 sessions at least 35 minutes in length. Their balance was measured before and after the programs using standard tests and compared with a control group who either did no exercise or did other types of balance-enhancing activities.
What the research tells us
As you might guess, Wii-based exercises are definitely better than nothing. Balance significantly improved in the study group compared with those who didn’t exercise at all. And Wii-based programs appear to be just as effective as other types of exercise programs in enhancing balance control in older adults (4). A more recent systematic review, which largely included but was not limited to Wii-based exercises, lent further support to the benefits of active video games for balance in older adults (5).
More high quality studies are needed to determine if these positive effects last in the long term, and by no means does the evidence suggest anyone abandon their current exercise routines in favour of virtual reality programs!
However it is encouraging news for older people who don’t participate in any type of balance training exercise – perhaps, ironically, because of a fear of falling (6). Using a Wii system at home to develop better balance may give many older adults more confidence to be mobile and active, which may result in a higher quality of life (4). Be sure to clear out tripping hazards and make adequate space in your environment when engaging in active video games like Wii-based exercise.