While many Baby Boomers may associate video games with laziness and even antisocial behaviour, a new study has found they can be surprisingly helpful – especially for people experiencing chronic lower back pain.
It turns out gaming consoles that offer video game exercises can reduce lower back pain in older people by 27 per cent, according to research by the University of Sydney. The first-of-its-kind study, published in the Physical Therapy Journal, found lower back pain is the most disabling and costly musculoskeletal condition in the world and unfortunately it’s older people who are most likely to feel the burden.
It can also impact other physical functions such as balance, strength and walking speed, although researchers believe those who use video games that encourage movement could see a 27 per cent reduction in pain and a 23 per cent increase in exercise function. Still, not every game on the market can have the same impact on lower back health.
“This is the first study to investigate the effectiveness of a video-game exercise program in older people with low back pain,” Dr Joshua Zadro from the University of Sydney School of Public Health told Starts at 60. “So, at this stage, the Nintendo Wii-Fit-U program is the only one that has had its efficacy formally evaluated in this population.”
Read more: Seven tips to managing lower back pain
Using the device and game allowed participants to practice flexibility, strengthening and aerobic exercises from home without physiotherapist supervision. Because physio visits can be expensive and hard to arrange for those living in remote or rural areas, the research found relying on video game technology has a lot of potential. It was also praised for those who prefer home-based exercises over travelling to visit specialists.
Participants practised exercises with the gaming console for an hour, three times a week during an eight-week program. The results were comparable to programs completed by physiotherapists. Zadro said it was important for people with lower back pain to keep moving.
“When it comes to exercise for low back pain, no single form of exercise is superior to another. Instead, many different types of exercises are equally effective such as pilates, yoga, aerobic exercise, general strengthening and specific strengthening of the back and abdominal muscles,” he explained.
Zadro also stressed that the specific program was another form of exercise, rather than replacing it completely.
“The program contains a variety of aerobic, balance and muscle strengthening exercises, and provides video and audio instructions, feedback on an individual’s technique and scores individuals on the basis of their performance,” he said. “As a result, some individuals may find the Wii-Fit-U program more motivating than traditional forms of exercise and prefer to accumulate their regular exercise through the program.”
It’s also vital to know that while exercise remains important for all over-60s and specifically those living with chronic lower back pain, some people won’t be able to exercise as much as others because of their condition.
Read more: Quick and easy chair exercises for over-60s
“Some individuals might not be accustomed to certain exercises or movements and it is important that these individuals gradually increase their level of activity,” Zadro said. “Rapidly increasing the amount of exercise an individual performs may increase their risk of a flare-up and turn them off exercising. It is therefore important that increases in activity or exposure to new movements are gradual.”
While the gaming technology can be daunting, such programs could actually be implemented under the current Medical Benefit Scheme chronic pain care pathway in Australia, with experts pointing out that only one session would be required to show people how to set up the game and use it. Traditional exercise programs currently require many more sessions.
It’s always important to talk to a health professional or GP before undertaking new exercise.