(This article previously appeared on buffalo.com.)
Donna Propis, 67, rushes to the yoga class she takes twice a week at the Amherst Senior Center. She’s in a hurry but the hooting from the lounge makes her stop for a moment to see what’s going on. A group of seniors are clapping, sighing, and catcalling as two 80-somethings square off against each other … at the bowling alley … on the computer screen. Totally engaged in the game, they are playing Wii Sports bowling using a remote that senses body motions – and they’re clearly having a blast.
“I’m not a fan of any video games, especially violent ones,” admitted Propis, who has three grown children and one 4-year-old granddaughter. “But this is different because it involves physical activity.”
Every parent of a teen has heard about research suggesting that gaming encourages violence, addiction and even obesity. One 2006 study, in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, said violent video games caused desensitization to real-life violence. Many parents struggle to limit screen time and try to find creative ways to discourage kids from playing video games.
Positive Impacts of Video Games
But other studies have found more positive impacts of gaming. A 2009 study discovered that interactive video game cycling actually motivated participants to expend more energy than traditional stationary cycling, and a recent study by George Washington University researchers found that inner city youth could be motivated by dance and other fitness video games. Yet another study, published in the Archives of Surgery, revealed that surgeons who played video games had improved hand-eye coordination: they were able to operate faster (and with fewer errors) than their colleagues.
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It was the potential for positive outcomes that enticed Ying-Yu Chao, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Buffalo, to design an experiment to test if fitness video games could have a positive impact on the health of seniors.
“Many older adults are not physically active, they sit all day on a chair or lie in a bed,” explained Chao, 33, a registered nurse who worked for three years in a rehabilitation unit in National Taiwan University Hospital before coming to Buffalo. “I wanted them to get moving and be more active.”
Wii Sports Games, Balance and Depression
Chao presented her findings in a poster session at the Gerontology Society of America’s (GSA) annual meeting last November. Her three investigations included a total of 39 older adults, all of whom were residents of assisted living facilities in Buffalo. In one study, Chao divided participants into two groups: one played Wii Sports video games and the other received health information only. The two most popular Wii games among her elderly cohort: a balance game called Penguin Slide where players impersonate a penguin standing on an iceberg and try to catch fish; and Table Tilt, where the object is to get balls in the holes in the table by using your body (and your balance) to tilt the board.
“We found the participants made significant improvements in balance and also in depression,” Chao explained of those who participated in Wii Sports. “They became less depressed. They also showed improved mobility — they had an easier time walking — and more social interaction with others.”
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Older Gamers Can Be Mighty Competitive
Chao, who herself enjoys playing video games with her friends, said there was one aspect of the experiment that surprised her: she wasn’t expecting the seniors to be so competitive. At lunch after their hour-long fitness sessions, participants would compare scores, joking with each other and threatening revenge the next time they played. “They cared about their scores,” Chao explained at the GSA conference. “They were embarrassed if they didn’t do well.”
Fierce but friendly competition is an aspect of playing sports video games that Melissa Avel, 44, program coordinator at the Amherst Senior Center, has noticed as well. Avel said the video games have become more popular since the Center first purchased a console about six years ago, and there is a hardcore group of about a dozen members who play daily.
“They’re very competitive about it,” Avel said, remembering how one of the seniors who had a stroke was motivated to work harder in rehab so she could come back and play the Wii. When she bowled 300, she paraded her certificate (made by the staffers) proudly around the Center.
All exercise can be fun, but there’s a playfulness to fitness video games, as well as a fantasy component, that make them especially enjoyable — and perhaps also less stressful than traditional sports — for older adults. “The residents had a lot of fun with Wii Fit,” said Susan McVay, administrator of Elderwood Assisted Living at West Seneca, where Chao conducted some of her research and the average age is 87. “They laughed a lot, and they enjoyed learning the new technology that younger people use.”
“I think that using video games can be outstanding for keeping people active,” said Bill Wieczorek, director for Center for Health and Social Research and a professor at Buffalo State College. “We need to help elders engage in this kind of physical activity.” McVay agreed, saying that her staff has seen a marked reduction in falls among residences who exercise, as well as an improvement of strength, balance, mobility, aerobic function and cognitive awareness.
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Importance of Taking Precautions
“But as we get older we’re all between a rock and a hard place,” said Dr. Thomas Lombardo, Jr., president of the Erie County Medical Society, who is 66 and exercises daily. “Our heart, lungs, brain, kidneys, liver want us to exercise. Our back, hips, shoulders, knees want us to sit and read a book. I’ve never seen a death notice that said ‘died of a sore knee.’”
Lombardo loves the idea of using fitness video games to get older adults active as long as they take precautions to use it properly. “My philosophy is to help older people to get up and exercise,” he said. And then he shares a secret: after his 8-year-old grandson ran circles around him on the basketball court during a recent visit to North Carolina, they went back to the house and played Wii bowling.
“He drags me onto the court but I get winded a lot faster than he does,” Lombardo admits. “It’s hot in Charlotte. This was a lot less tiresome.”
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and author of The Business of Baby. This article was done in collaboration with the Gerontology Society of America and New American Media’s Metlife Foundation Journalists in Aging Program.