Health & Fitness Games

FWD News: Games for Pain Reduction, Alcoholism and Visually-Impaired Fitness

FWD News: Games for Pain Reduction, Alcoholism and Visually-Impaired Fitness 150 150 GAMESFWD

Virtual reality games are showing promise as a tool to combat pain. A research project is studying the analgesic effects of virtual reality environments and how they impact the way patients’ brains respond to pain.

“Virtual reality produces a modulating effect that is endogenous, so the analgesic influence is not simply a result of distraction but may also impact how the brain responds to painful stimuli,”explains Dr. Jeffrey I. Gold, associate professor of anaesthesiology and paediatrics, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. “The focus is drawn to the game not the pain or the medical procedure, while the virtual reality experience engages visual and other senses.” More…

Presenting at the annual scientific meeting of the American Pain Society, specialists and researchers reviewed their findings in the field of virtual reality games.

Dr. Lynnda M. Dahlquist, a clinical child psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, revealed details from her recent laboratory research examining the use of virtual reality and other computer and video game technologies to provide distraction-based acute pain management.

In one pilot study involving 100 children having blood drawn, those immersed in a virtual 3D environment felt less pain than those who watched a cartoon or who played video games on a flat screen. There was less distress for the technician and the parent as well. On the other hand, the researcher recorded significantly greater pain tolerance for kids wearing specially-equipped video helmets when they actually interacted with the virtual environment.

While early results are promising, Dahlquist emphasizes that more research is needed to know for certain if virtual reality would play the same distracting role in such pain-generating procedures as cleansing wounds, cancer treatment, immunization, injections and burn care. However, one preliminary study showed a reduction of 30 to 50 percent in pain ratings during severe burn wound care while patients using virtual reality during physical therapy reported greater reductions in the amount of time spent thinking about pain and its intensity.

Game Tackles Alcohol Recovery

The University of Central Florida and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, SC, have developed a video game to help recovering alcoholics avoid falling off the wagon and reintegrate into sober life. Entitled Guardian Angel, the game is a project under the Health Games Research program.

The mini game-based software leads players through the choices recovering alcoholics must face in their rehabilitation. Players start the game with no job or driver’s license, for example, and have to plan their daily travels to avoid liquor stores and other triggers. A “craving meter” takes note of the player’s stress levels and emotional state. Too much stress and emotional volatility will push the character to relapse.

Dr. Marcia Verduin, from the University of Central Florida is one of the lead project researchers. She explains that with this game, recovering alcoholics will have the chance to make these mistakes in a virtual world, rather than in real life. Learning these relapse skills in a game is also meant to make the learning process more enjoyable.

Trials are expected to continue until fall 2010. Once the research is completed, the project developers plan on making the game available online at no cost.

Visually-Impaired Gamers can Get Fit Too

Another research project, this time from the University of Nevada, Reno, has found a way to let the visually impaired play fitness games. Called VI Fit, and loosely inspired by Nintendo`s Wii Fit, the free games can be played using the Wii Remote and a Bluetooth-enabled PC.

“Lack of vision forms a significant barrier to participation in physical activity, and consequently children with visual impairments have much higher obesity rates and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes,” said Eelke Folmer, lead researcher on the project.

In VI Tennis, players get audio and vibration cues letting them know when to serve and return the ball. In VI Bowling, vibrotactile feedback shows players where to throw the virtual bowling ball. In an evaluation of the game, participants were found to exert as much energy playing VI Bowling as if they had spent the same amount of time walking.

Additional research on this project was done in collaboration with experts from the State University of New York, Cortland and the Department of Kinesiology, Sports Studies, and Physical Education at SUNY. The PC games can be downloaded for free on the VI Fit website.

NeuroActive Science Promotes Healthy Body and Mind

NeuroActive Science Promotes Healthy Body and Mind 150 150 GAMESFWD

Brain fitness is one of the fastest growing industries in North America whose value reached $265 million in 2008, according to industry market research leader SharpBrains. Neuroscience research has demonstrated that like your muscles, your brain can grow stronger and more agile through proper training and regular activity. Canadian-based Brain Center International (BCI) is making waves in the field by helping thousands of customers improve their brain performance each year.

BCI is the maker of NeuroActive Program, a brain training software which targets 16 specific brain functions. Unlike entertainment titles which claim to help your brain, BCI prides itself on its science-based, clinically-validated software. Through twenty-two different exercises users train a range of skills including various memory and visual-spatial functions, processing speed, selective attention and behaviour modification.

In an interview with Game Forward, BCI President and CEO Dr. Stephane Bergeron said that clinical trials of NeuroActive Program have shown average improvements of 20 percent in working memory and brain processing speed.

“The best example I can give is of myself,” said Dr. Bergeron. “I have a lot of trouble with facial memory, remembering names and faces. It’s difficult to see your neighbour down the street and not remember their name. Training with NeuroActivProgram helped me improve this skill and made an impossible task possible.”

In fact, Dr. Bergeron adds, memory and especially that of names and faces—known as “social memory”—is the area with which people have the most trouble as cognitive decline sets in. But unlike previously believed, the mild cognitive decline that comes with age is not permanent and is reversible with proper training.

“While most people are now aware of the importance of physical fitness, they only start to pay attention to brain fitness when they notice this deterioration, around the age of 45 or 50,” says Dr. Bergeron. “Brain training at this time can completely reverse these effects.”

Research shows that those who perform these types of mental exercises experience less cognitive decline, slow it down and are less likely to suffer from dementia. The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) research project funded by the National Institutes of Health found that in addition to maintaining high levels of brain activity in seniors, brain training can also slow the onset of Alzheimer’s. The disease is no longer thought to be exclusively tied to heredity but rather mainly attributed to a lack of physical exercise and mental stimulation.

But Dr. Bergeron emphasises that brain training can be helpful at any point in life, including with children. “If you do it while you are still in school you will benefit and make learning easier. Similarly, some businesses use this type of training to boost productivity and improve the performance of their employees.”

Game Forward had the opportunity to test out NeuroActive Program Complete Brain Training, the 2010 version of the all-in-one BCI training software. In this version, the exercises mainly take the form of short 2D graphic games, in which players need to rapidly click, reacting to various audio-visual stimuli or performing a given task in a limited time. Scheduled once every two days, each training session contains four exercises taking about 20 minutes to complete. The software allows up to three user profiles and also offers one guest profile.

A typical training session might look like this: in The Convenience Store, pick out rightly priced items adding up to the bill total; in Clearance Sale, select discounted red tags before they disappear; in The Library, appropriately group diagrams which evoke a similar theme; in The Rehearsal, select the shorter between two flashes of light or musical notes played.

Unlike some other serious brain training software, NeuroActive Program does not use baseline assessment as a snapshot of a user’s cognitive profile. Instead, the software builds a personalized training program by selecting exercises and their difficulty according to the user’s age, gender and education level.

“These parameters are then adjusted during the training, with dynamic difficulty settings that reflect your current abilities at that time—because brain abilities change several times a day,” said Dr. Bergeron. It is for that reason that he rejects the use of baseline assessments. They do not necessarily provide a reliable starting point because this snapshot does not offer a full picture of someone’s abilities, he explains.

When trying to remember a sequence of faces, or a telephone number backwards, you can really feel your mind working. These focused tasks noticeably stimulate certain brains functions leading to recognizable progress. After completing an exercise, users receive a score which they can compare to the average of their reference group.

Between scheduled sessions, players can use the custom training portion of the software to practice every exercise at any difficulty setting to further push themselves. This section is highly informative, providing details about each exercise such as the cognitive skills being used, examples of how these skills are applied in daily life and which regions of the brain these tasks activate.

Training with brain fitness software like NeuroActive Program helps build what is known as your cognitive reserve—your brain’s ability to resist and adapt to deterioration of the nervous system. By developing and strengthening neural pathways and synapses brain training exercises keep them young and healthy, and prevent them from failing.

However, when it comes to an active brain, an active body is more important than some would believe. Physical activity plays a direct role on brain power. As exercise increases your blood flow, the brain receives more oxygen and nutrients. It is with that concept in mind that BCI created the NeuroActive BrainBike, produced and distributed in collaboration with Exergame Fitness USA and MotionFitness.

The BrainBike is a stationary bike augmented with all-in-one computer on which the NeuroActive Program software is used. Available for commercial or residential use, the BrainBike includes a heart-rate monitor and a blue backlit super-twisted nematic (STN) display, which is said to offer a viewing angle of up to 270 degrees and the most comfortable visual colour combination to the human eye. To ensure that users remain active, a special mechanism designed by Gamercize forces users to pedal in order to activate the system’s wireless mouse.

The Gamercize technology “is more commonly seen with our under desk stepper to turn home and office computer time into active time. The patented principle is keep moving yourself to keep your inputs alive,” explains Richard Coshott, CEO of Gamercize. “We’ve seen great success with the low level of exercise on work productivity from (the interface), so I know the combination of moving body to speed the brain works!”

Making physical training incidental to the main activity is important because it improves conditioning in a subtle way, believes Coshott. “The stealth approach of Gamercize means you’re much more likely to have a lower perception of the effort you are expending, which in turn makes the exercise sustainable. The BrainBike gives the same experience.”

BCI struck a new distribution deal for BrainBike in the United States in December 2009. But the device is already found in two Florida fitness centres, in several Canadian gyms, as well as in a growing number of schools.

The concept is lauded by Phil Lawler, a retired gym teacher and now Director of Instruction and Outreach for PE4Life. With his help, the Naperville, Illinois school district boasts one of the most advanced physical education programs in the world which has trained schools in 40 states and hosted observers from ten foreign countries. There students experience what is dubbed “learning readiness PE” which focuses on health and fitness rather than sports.

Based on research outlining the impact of movement on the brain, classrooms are filled with stability balls, podiums, balance boards and stationary bikes rather than chairs and desks, all to improve students’ blood flow to the brain while learning. “In today’s schools, where [physical education] is sometimes taken out to favour academic, sit-down courses, students have less oxygen going to their brains, limiting their comprehension and recalling capacities,” explains Lawler.

To the teacher, the NeuroActive BrainBike is a promising tool which could find a welcome home in more American schools. Lawler is currently looking for funding to upgrade the schools’ stationary bikes with BrainBikes. Students in Wellington, Florida are some of the rare few who already have a BrainBike in their school. “It’s definitely shown a positive impact in my class,” said Kim Murray, a teacher at Panther Run Elementary School.

Tommy Seilheimer, Vice-President of Exergame Fitness USA, explains that there are significant benefits to the BrainBike which schools should consider. Using the device prepares and stimulates the brain for learning and training, counter-balancing regular classes in which kids sit all day and become drowsy. Students that use the BrainBike get so deep in thought that they forget that they are exercising, making it a fun way to get active. And not only do kids feel better physically but they also develop new social interactions. For example, most kids will circle one player and work in teams to answer questions, making it more than a one person workout.

In the future, Phil Lawler wishes to see BrainBikes in the back of every classroom for students to use when they need to stimulate their brains. One day he hopes schools might even offer BrainBikes with targeted exercises designed specifically for a subject area, like science, social studies, or reading software.

As we speak, the marketing opportunities for this type of tool are rapidly growing. “We’re looking at getting the BrainBikes into gyms,” said Seilheimer. “Instead of running with an iPod on or while watching television, some people might be interested in working their mind as well, wanting to focus and learn.”

As more people learn about the benefits of brain training as well as the intricate link between physical and mental fitness, Seilheimer expects to see the NeuroActive BrainBike steadily gain in popularity. In the meantime, BCI is developing a new software series, soon to be released, which will address specific sets of key functions for targeted training—further expanding its contribution to the brain fitness industry.

Health and Medical Games News Roundup: 11-02-2009

Health and Medical Games News Roundup: 11-02-2009 150 150 GAMESFWD

There has been a lot of news relating to health and medical technology and games in recent weeks. From video games for medical research and disease management to health education games, here is a summary of some of the stories which have caught our attention.

A new study by the University of Florida is looking to determine whether exergaming can have a positive impact on osteoarthritis. The disease is the most common form of arthritis, caused when joint cartilage wears down. Knee and hip joints are the most frequently affected by the disease. The research focuses on women between the ages of 50 and 70. More…

We hope to learn from this study the impact of pain on physical activity and if participants who enjoy the exercise will report less pain,” said Bridgett Rahim-Williams, lead researcher of the project. “If women find a physical activity that is fun, perhaps they’ll do it even in the face of pain. (…) And when people are more physically active, their health outcomes improve.”

A website entitled Generation Cures is taking an active role in promoting healthcare research. Built as an online community, the website offers games for children to play. Every time someone reaches a new game level, sponsors will make a donation to the Children’s Hospital Boston, helping to fund some of its important research.

Game technology is also being used directly for medical research by physicists and engineers at Ohio State University. They created a device which could help examine tumour cells, using magnetic fields to separate cancerous cells from healthy tissue. In order to manipulate these cells, the researchers use a video game joystick to switch the magnetic field on command.

“You can look at each cell rather than averaging it out,” said physics professor Ratnasingham Sooryakumar, main researcher on the project. “When you actually have 10,000 of them to analyze the data, you can understand stat distributions that we normally would not have gotten in ensemble measurements, and that’s a huge thing.”

Researchers at the University of Chile and Harvard Medical School have been developing audio-based PC games which allow visually impaired and blind children to develop spatial, cognitive and social skills. The study focuses on three games which let players navigate a labyrinth, a subway system and real-world buildings based on audio cues. While the games can’t yet replace traditional rehabilitative techniques the team hopes this research will provide complementary means of helping the blind.

“(We’ve) concentrated on developing the gaming software as a rehabilitation tool to allow blind users to survey unfamiliar buildings before actually navigating through them in real life, as well as conducting brain imaging studies to uncover how the brain of a blind individual accomplishes this task,” said Dr. Lotfi B. Merabet, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.

There have been a couple of games focusing on HIV/AIDS released in the past year, but another new project is currently under way. Dr. Lynn Fiellin, assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine, has received a five-year, $3.9 million research grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to support her study.

She is working to develop and test an interactive virtual reality video game called Retro-Warriors that will teach adolescents of various ethnicities how to make healthier choices. The research plans to create a world in which users can engage in role-playing to learn to avoid risky behaviours—such as unprotected sex, as well as drug and alcohol abuse—that could lead to HIV.

“The game could travel with the player—it could be used at home, on a console, a cell phone or a personal digital assistant,” said Fiellin. “Access to the Internet is growing in developing countries and these technologies could be transferred to adolescents in countries experiencing a growing HIV epidemic but which have limited access to targeted risk-reduction strategies.”

Playing Wii Can Earn Students Physical Education Credits

Playing Wii Can Earn Students Physical Education Credits 150 150 GAMESFWD

The University of Houston has introduced a brand new way to earn physical education credits. In the class entitled Wii Performance, students will learn how to improve their posture, centre of balance and their knowledge of health and fitness.

The class will use the games Wii FitWii SportsWii Sports Resort and Dance Dance Revolution in addition to more traditional methods. Students will also take quizzes on health and nutrition and track their calorie intake and daily activities.

“Our department conducts a host of research into the epidemic of obesity, not only its root causes, but ways to combat it and the diseases related to it,” said Jessica Wheeler, program coordinator at the University of Houston. “Using the Wii games can be both fun and an effective tool. We anticipate that many students will want to take this class.”

This innovative teaching method may be surprising to some; however a growing number of schools are turning to the Wii to stimulate students. For example, at the new Bunker Hill Elementary School in Middletown, Delaware, students were greeted with a fitness room equipped with a 50-inch widescreen television and a Nintendo Wii.

The video game console is also a staple in the fitness centre at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Delaware. “They (the students) really like the video games, the interactive fitness, as I call it,” said Kim Eroh, a gym teacher at the school. She started using the game system in class in 2007.

“You have a lot of kids who are not as active,” said Barb Bobik, a physical education teacher at Olive B. Loss Elementary School in Bear, Delaware, who started piloting the Wii games for fourth-graders at the end of 2008 and plans to expand it for grades 3-5 in gym class 2009.

“Kids are a little overweight now. This motivates them. This hooks kids who are not going to be out there running around at every recess playing tag. It doesn’t look like work to them. I just want them to move.”

Fun, but Are They Effective?

While the fact that kids are attracted to fitnessp-themed games is undeniable, their effectiveness remains to be fully proven. The U.K. government has endorsed the Wii for use in school physical education classes following a pilot project that used heart monitoring to determine that regular use increased students’ fitness. However, more evidence remains needed to properly assert their success rate.

Scientists at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center have found that active video games offer a great alternative to moderate exercise for many children of today’s generation who are sedentary and at high risk for obesity and diabetes.

“These exergames are no substitute for ‘real’ sports activities, but if kids play them as designed and stay engaged, they can burn several calories per hour above their sedentary level,” said Kevin Short, Ph.D., principal investigator on the project, which was published in the July 2009 issue of Pediatrics.

The Oklahoma researchers measured the heart rate, energy expenditure and self-reported exertion in children between ages 10-13 while they watched television, played active video games and walked on the treadmill at three different speeds. They found that the energy expenditure levels reached during active video game play were comparable to moderate-intensity walking and that playing physically active games can be a safe, fun and valuable means of promoting energy expenditure.

Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, an Iowa State University assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, is also researching the measurable health benefits of active games. Lanningham-Foster was lead author of a study titled “Activity-Promoting Video Games and Increased Energy Expenditure,” published in the June 2009 issue of The Journal of Pediatrics.

Her initial research on 22 children, ages 10 to 14, found that a child who plays eight hours of video games a week will burn 1,990 calories—an average of 284 per day—through Wii Sports boxing. The amount is three times greater than the energy expenditure from playing a traditional sedentary video game.

“What I wanted to demonstrate was how many more calories your body can burn by playing Wii as opposed to playing a traditional video game — and it’s quite a lot,” said Lanningham-Foster.

Whatever gets kids moving in any manner is a good thing, according to John Ray, an education specialist for physical education with the Delaware Department of Education. “I think it’s a positive,” Ray said of Wii games. “Anything that promotes physical activity and being fit for life is good. We have a long way to go with our obesity and overweight population. But we’re making progress.”