Virtual Reality Enhances Senior Exercise

by Fit After Fifty
Closeup of bike handlebars with a background overlooking a city

If you think virtual reality (VR) is just for the younger generations, it’s time to think again. Recent studies have shown the different ways in which virtual reality enhances senior exercise.

Motivating Seniors to Exercise

Most nursing homes offer fitness facilities and access to physical therapists, but that doesn’t mean that residents are eager to use them. A recent study suggests that virtual reality may be able to change that.

To carry out this study, a researcher from Aalborg University in Denmark partnered with physical therapists at a nursing home in Copenhagen. They placed large screens in front of exercise bikes so that the 21 elderly residents who participated in the program could ride through virtual landscapes of their choice. Because the screens and bikes were connected, the speeds at which participants advanced through the landscapes mirrored their actual biking speeds.

In the second part of the study, the virtual reality was upgraded to include VR goggles that had screens built in. These goggles make you feel like you’re really in another setting, as you can actually look around merely by turning your head.

Both parts of the study increased the residents’ motivation to exercise, and residents and their relatives have since asked for VR to be a permanent part of the nursing home’s fitness center. The researcher behind the study largely attributes this increased motivation to the opportunity for seniors to get out of the nursing home, if only virtually. For many nursing home residents, such excursions aren’t feasible, so the chance to experience something comparable makes exercising seem much more worthwhile.

Reducing Risk of Falls

Falls are the most common cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries for seniors in the United States. Even when falls don’t result in injury, they can lead to fear of falling, which often causes older adults to avoid activities they once enjoyed. This lack of independence may spiral into worsening physical condition, depression, seclusion, and a sense of incompetence.

Fortunately, falls don’t have to be a natural part of the aging process, and evidence-based fall prevention programs serve to help older adults reduce their risk of falling. Researchers recently found incorporating virtual reality into treadmill exercise to be one such effective program.

The study divided 282 seniors between 60 and 90 with a high falls risk into two groups, with one receiving regular treadmill training and the other receiving treadmill training with nonimmersive virtual reality. The VR consisted of a camera that recorded each participant’s feet as they walked and projected that movement onto a screen in front of the treadmill. Participants could see their feet move on the screen, which included realistic obstacles — such as puddles, pathways, and other distractors — to challenge them and thus reduce falls risk.

After six weeks of training, the researchers monitored participants’ rate of falls for the next six months. Although both groups saw a decreased rate of falls, the change was only significant for the virtual reality group, for which falls decreased by 42 percent.

Changing the Way Seniors Exercise

As it turns out, virtual reality isn’t all fun and games. Exercise bikes and treadmills already offer excellent low-impact workouts for seniors, and these studies suggest that VR can make the workouts more productive in terms of preventing falls and a more regular part of seniors’ routines — both of which could have a significant impact on their quality and quantity of life.

Image via Max Pixel

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