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Rory A. Cooper

Video Game System Is an Effective Method of Exercise for Wheelchair Users, Find University of Pittsburgh Researchers

PITTSBURGH, August 2, 2000 — Researchers in rehabilitation science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh have developed an interactive video game system that improves the physical fitness of persons who require wheelchairs for mobility.

The researchers evaluated the use of Gamewheels , an interface between a portable roller system and a computer that enables a wheelchair user to play commercially available computer video games and improve their physical fitness. The results of their study, "Evaluation of a Manual Wheelchair Interface to Computer Games," were published in the most recent issue of Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.

"Research shows that many individuals who use wheelchairs have an increased rate of cardiovascular disease as opposed to their ambulatory counterparts," said Thomas O’Connor, Ph.D. candidate, department of rehabilitation science and technology and the study’s principal investigator. "Some wheelchair users might find regular exercise programs too difficult physically or psychologically, and many find that using standard arm crank or roller systems can be monotonous. We are looking for a way that individuals with spinal cord injuries would be motivated to exercise on a regular basis."

The system, which was built by Rory Cooper, Ph.D., professor and chairman, department of rehabilitation science and technology at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, works by strapping a wheelchair onto two portable rollers. Each roller is fitted with optical encoders that send position and speed data to the interface board. These data are sent to the computer’s mouse port and allow the rollers to emulate the functions of a mouse to control the game. The games used in the study, based on their variety and trials with the investigators, were Need for Speed II (Electronic Arts), The Ultimate Doom (id Software) and Power Boat Racer (Promethean Designs Ltd.).

The user plays the game play by propelling the wheelchair’s pushrims. If the participant is playing Need for Speed II, for example, the harder the person pushes, the faster the game’s racecar will go.

The study took place at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL)/Center for Excellence for Wheelchair and Related Technology, a joint venture between the University of Pittsburgh and the VA Pittsburgh Health Care System, and was based on findings that video game play can increase metabolic levels and heart rates in children and young adults while seated.

The study took part in two phases: In Phase 1, researchers recruited 35 wheelchair athletes who participated in the 1998 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Pittsburgh to evaluate the system and determine which video games they preferred to use while exercising. Their disabilities included spinal cord injuries (SCIs), amputations and nerve disease. Phase 2 enlisted 10 manual wheelchair users to participate in physiological data collection. Their injuries included SCIs, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord disease.

Although five of the users in Phase 1 were unable to use the device because the track width of their wheelchair was too great, all of those who were able to reported that they found it enjoyable. Playing time ranged from three to 12 minutes, and while Phase 1 did not evaluate physiological data, approximately 75 percent of the participants reported an elevated heart rate at the end of game play. Several athletes reported that they reached their personal exercise training level.

Phase 2 measured each of the 10 participants’ heart rate and oxygen consumption. While none of the participants was involved in organized sports, a few exercised occasionally. Participants were considered to be in an exercise-training zone when they reached 50 percent of their maximum oxygen consumption and 60 percent of their maximum heart rate. Nine of the subjects were able to reach this training level when using the Gamewheels system.

"All of the subjects who participated in this study were excited about the fact that they could get involved in the computer game and forgot that they were working out," said O’Connor. "They especially liked the idea that they were controlling the computer game with the propulsion of their own wheelchair and not some other wheelchair."

The researchers also found that those who used the Gamewheels system were more motivated to exercise with the game they enjoyed playing the most, and that the system would help them to exercise for a longer period of time. Eighty-six percent of the subjects reported that they would like a Gamewheels system for their home.

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