Motivating Children with Disabilities to Exercise: New Assistive Technologies Encourage Fitness in Fun Ways

Advances in assistive technologies are revolutionizing the way children with disabilities engage in physical activities. These innovative tools not only motivate children but also offer significant health benefits such as improved fitness, mobility, and general health.

Gamification of therapies

One such advancement is the integration of gamification elements into assistive technologies. Gamification is the idea of adding games or game-like activities to actions or processes as a way to increase a participant’s engagement. In a recent study titled “Gamification and Neurological Motor Rehabilitation in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review,” published in the medical journal Neurologia, researchers analyzed gamification systems used as part of the rehabilitation treatment for different neuromotor conditions in children and adolescents. The condition most frequently studied was cerebral palsy, but developmental coordination disorder, neurological gait disorders, and neurological impairment of balance and coordination also were investigated. 

Researchers reported that “gamification in rehabilitation is helpful in the conventional treatment of neuromotor disorders in children and adolescents, with increased motivation and therapeutic adherence being the benefits with the greatest consensus among authors.” They noted that strength, balance, functional status, and coordination also appear to improve when gamified activities are used.

Use of wearable devices

Personalized wearable devices are also are gaining traction as customized tools for children with disabilities. Wearables ranging from “smart” clothing to small devices can be used in a variety of ways for continuous physiological monitoring and to provide user feedback related to activities. This allows assessment and intervention regarding users’ abilities, task demands, or the environment, which can promote functional performance and participation in therapeutic programs.

According to the study “Wearables for Pediatric Rehabilitation: How to Optimally Design and Use Products to Meet the Needs of Users,” published in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association, “Smart wearables will likely be most effective when clinicians and clients use them to measure or provide feedback on targeted outcomes based on scientifically supported models for change. In other words, although smart garments can allow us to monitor and provide feedback on any number of variables, we should focus on those variables that the literature suggests are likely to allow us to impact our clients’ goals.”

Creating Therapeutic Virtual Reality (VR) experiences

Motor impairment, which includes neurological conditions that increase or reduce movement, is common for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This can significantly affect adaptive behavior and increase severity of symptoms associated with ASD. “Low-cost motion capture and virtual reality (VR) game technologies hold a great deal of promise for providing personalized approaches to motor intervention in ASD,” notes researches in the recent study “Feasibility of a Virtual Reality-based Exercise Intervention and Low-cost Motion-tracking Method for Estimation of Motor Proficiency in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” published in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation.

Many parents said they would use the VR game at home with their children, although cost and space were the most common barriers to adopting the technology for at-home therapy. Even though the study revealed little evidence that the use of the VR game improved gross motor skills, the study above showed “several positive correlations between the standardized measures of gross motor skills in ASD and our measures of efficiency, symmetry and synchrony from low-cost motion capture.”

Employing adaptive sports equipment

Adaptive sports equipment tailored to the specific needs of children with disabilities has garnered attention for its role in promoting inclusive physical activity. Specially designed or customized equipment not only can allow children with disabilities to participate in a wide range of activities but also promote inclusion at schools and in organized sports.

A prime showcase for leveraging the use of adaptive sports equipment is the Paralympic Games. These local, national, and international events provide opportunities for athletes with disabilities to compete in a variety of sports such as swimming, tennis, track and field, gymnastics, basketball, hockey, skiing, hand cycling, rowing, and many other activities. However, far more children with disabilities participate in these sports purely as recreational pursuits, thanks to adaptive equipment.

“Participating in sports can provide a range of physical, emotional, and social benefits for children with disabilities. It can help improve physical fitness, develop social skills and friendships, boost self-esteem, and promote overall well-being,” noted researchers in a study published in the journal Physical & Occupational Therapy In Pediatrics: “A Conceptual Model of the Factors Affecting the Recreation and Leisure Participation of Children with Disabilities.”

Conclusions about assistive technologies

As the landscape of assistive technologies continues to evolve, so too does the potential to empower children with disabilities to lead active and fulfilling lives. By harnessing the benefits of gamification, wearable devices, VR, and adaptive sports equipment, more physical education teachers, coaches, and parents can foster a culture of inclusivity and promote holistic health and fitness among children of all abilities. Additionally, this equipment offers more ways for kids to have fun.

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