The term “gamer” does not typically bring to mind the picture of health. Actually, it often seems to conjure images of unhealthy behavior – prolonged periods of limited to no movement, vision problems, and the development of a colorful vocabulary in response to in-game setbacks.  Sitting on a couch or an ergonomic chair holding a controller for hours on end doesn’t do much to facilitate healthy living. In many cases, the only workouts a gamer receives are vocal, accompanied by spikes in blood pressure elicited from in-game surprises.

Nintendo devised a way to combat this stereotype and created a game that actually forces players to move with Wii Fit, a game specifically designed for workouts. The Wii Balance Board, an electronic version of the traditional “plank on a log” balance board, was originally designed as a peripheral for the Wii Fit game. It is about the size of a bathroom scale (surely encouraging players to consider the implications of not making frequent use of the game) and contains four pressure sensors that are used to measure the user’s center of balance. During any Wii Fit or third-party game that uses the balance board, players stand on the board and shift their weight from front to back or side to side to follow the action on screen. For example, a user playing a game in which they ski a slalom run would shift their weight to the left or right to navigate the course.

Balance boards are already being utilized for more than fun and exercise. They have been considered as a rehabilitation treatment for the elderly and stroke patients in order to improve balance control that has deteriorated due to old age or neurological damage from a stroke. However, patients often complain of a lack of motivation at home when using the balance board on its own. Unfortunately, it seems to produce the same jaded attitude toward working out that anyone who can attest to giving up a workout regimen has experienced. For many, until the benefits begin to show themselves, it all feels like unproductive effort. Using the Wii Balance Board as a controller for a video game, entertainment value is injected into the rehabilitation, and the treatment becomes far more enjoyable. In-game achievements mask the laborious aspects of the treatment. Instead of following a pre-determined (and frankly, often boring) rehabilitation plan, patients can skateboard, surf, or ski their way to improved balance control.

A recent study published in the journal Radiology claimsthat use of the Wii Balance Board over a 12-week period has shown optimistic changes in the neural pathways involved with balance and movement for multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. People with MS have disrupted communication between the brain and the rest of the body, resulting in muscle weakness and difficulty with coordination and balance.

MRI scans taken throughout the treatment reported significant effects in nerve tracts associated with balance and movement. Remarkably, these scans also correlated with physical improvements in balance, measured by a technique called posturography. According to lead author Luca Prosperini, M.D., Ph.D., from Sapienza University in Rome, Italy, these brain changes in MS patients are likely a manifestation of neural plasticity. "The most important finding in this study is that a task-oriented and repetitive training aimed at managing a specific symptom is highly effective and induces brain plasticity," said Dr. Prosperini. "More specifically, the improvements promoted by the Wii Balance Board can reduce the risk of accidental falls in patients with MS, thereby reducing the risk of fall-related comorbidities like trauma and fractures."

Unfortunately, the improvements that occurred during the 12-week training program did not remain after the training was discontinued. It seems that with MS treatments like Wii Balance Board therapy, patients must persist with the treatment on a very long-term scale, likely because of the irreversible nature of MS. Certain skills that have been diminished because of the disease appear to have the need to be constantly maintained. MS patients would be expected to undergo the training indefinitely.

This does not present an issue, however, because the video game regimen presents a unique benefit compared to more conventional rehabilitation treatments for the elderly, stroke patients, and those with MS alike. Moving around on the balance board transports the users to a world where they are free from their physical limitations. Since the Wii Balance Board is designed to convert the user’s movements into in-game stunts, the user can experience the thrill of snowboarding with Shaun White, water-skiing on the open ocean, or becoming head cheerleader for a squad. This type of encouragement would certainly hit home with patients who become depressed as a result of their disabilities. Loss of motivation can be prevented for any rehabilitation through the application of an exciting treatment. Although these types of games won’t necessarily be integral in a rehabilitation regimen, they can certainly supplement the program. Those with disabilities will be encouraged to complete their training by the professional athletes they can become – virtually.