Girl tests out a virtual reality headset

Virtual Reality Exercise Therapy: A Gaming System Designed for Children with Physical Disabilities

Groundbreaking innovation in telehealth is on the horizon, offering new hope for children with physical disabilities. Imagine a world where exercise therapy is not only effective but also fun, engaging, and accessible at home. Thanks to a tele-exergaming program developed by researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) Lakeshore Foundation Research Collaborative, that vision is becoming a reality.

Dr. James Rimmer, director of the UAB Lakeshore Research Foundation, emphasizes how this innovation can address the lack of physical inactivity that’s often observed in children who have limited mobility or movement. He notes, “These preliminary findings are quite promising given the high rates of sedentary behavior and associated health risks exhibited by children and youth with physical disabilities.”

The promise of telehealth

Enter Dr. Byron Lai, the mastermind behind this revolutionary telehealth program. Through his efforts, children who previously faced barriers to exercise due to their disabilities are now achieving unprecedented levels of health-enhancing activity, all with the power of virtual reality gaming. Dr. Lai reports, “Two youths achieved an average of 200 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week” using the tele-exergaming program.

Lai’s study, “Feasibility of a Commercially Available Virtual Reality System to Achieve Exercise Guidelines in Youth with Spina Bifida: Mixed Methods Case Study,” was recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Serious Games. It showcases the feasibility and effectiveness of this approach. “The protocol within the virtual reality program uses commercially available software and equipment, making it a cost-effective system that can be disseminated on a large scale to help youth with disabilities enhance their health through exercise,” he noted.

But the impact doesn’t end there. The program has expanded beyond the lab, reaching into the community through partnerships with organizations such as Lakeshore Foundation. This makes it possible for children to access the virtual reality gaming system at home, even participating in online group-based exercise programs—a particularly vital resource during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The success stories continue to unfold, with even intensive care patients at the hospital Children’s of Alabama experiencing remarkable progress through the use of virtual reality gaming technology. Dr. Lai conducted a feasibility study demonstrating that “virtual reality gaming with adaptive software could be safely used by children with disabilities during the early critical stage of their rehabilitation while in the intensive care unit.”

Addressing challenges faced by children

These immersive games break down barriers, allowing participation from wheelchairs or beds and providing adaptive software for those with minimal arm function. Dr. Lai envisions a future where virtual reality gaming becomes synonymous with active living, accessible to all. Additionally, Lai and Rimmer are working on creating a state-of-the-art gaming lab that will use virtual reality and adaptive gaming equipment to advance research in this area and build an e-sports arena and gaming community for people with disabilities.

With ongoing research and development, including a grant submission to the National Institutes of Health, the potential for these devices to improve the health and well-being of youths with disabilities is boundless.

As Dr. Lai and Dr. Rimmer forge ahead, they’re not just changing lives; they’re building a gaming community and advancing research in the field of adaptive gaming. The future is bright, and thanks to their pioneering work, it’s a future where everyone, regardless of ability, can level up their health and happiness through the power of virtual reality gaming.


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