Exergaming: Breaking Down the Walls of Social Isolation While Improving Health

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If you think video games are just for kids, tweens and teens, you’d be terribly wrong. That’s how I started a blog post last April examining how senior citizens were improving their health and sense of well being with Kinect, Xbox 360, and Microsoft HealthVault. The article reviewed something known as “exergaming”, the practice of using interactive video games for fitness. It turns out that exergaming is popular with people of all ages. In my blog post, I reported on some of the work our Microsoft accessibility group had been doing with senior centers in Los Angeles. A few weeks ago on HealthBlog, I wrote an article on a related topic about why accessible technology matters to all of us. In that article, I covered some of the other great work coming out of our accessibility team that is helping people of all abilities use technology to reach their full potential.

This week the Microsoft accessibility team is continuing to expand their good work with a visit to New York City. There, a demonstration project has been underway to show how seniors can improve their physical, mental and social well being by participating in friendly competition and interactive gaming. The project is made possible by  a public-private partnership between Microsoft, NYC Department for the Aging (DFTA), and NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).

Exergamers NYC creates an immersive experience for seniors while promoting wellness. Through this pilot project, NYC hopes to bring older adults in senior centers across the city together to form new friendships and stay active. This pilot highlights that through the integration of innovative technologies, NYC senior centers are evolving into dynamic social and information hubs.  Many of New York’s innovative senior centers began exergaming by offering Zumba dancing and bowling with Microsoft Kinect for Xbox. Classes and friendly competitions have taken place within the senior centers and between them. Participating NYC centers include:

  • SAGE: Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders. SAGE is the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older adults.
  • SelfHelp Community Services Inc.: For the past 70-plus years, Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., a non-profit organization, has been dedicated to enabling seniors and at-risk families to live in their own homes, independently and with dignity. Selfhelp serves seniors in Flushing, Queens, which is one of the most ethnically diverse areas of New York.
  • VISIONS: Celebrating its 87th year of service, VISIONS assists people of all ages who are blind or visually impaired to lead independent and active lives in their homes and communities; and educate the public to understand the capabilities and needs of people who are blind or visually impaired

While all of the above information sets the stage, it’s really about the people that matters. My colleague, Bonnie Kearney who manages our accessibility group at Microsoft, provides in her own blog post a first-hand account of how exergaming is changing lives, improving health and bringing people of diverse backgrounds and abilities together. Imagine seniors who are hard of hearing, even deaf, playfully competing with other seniors using Kinect and Xbox during a session of virtual bowling. How about elderly folks with poor vision, or even blindness, exercising to the beats of Zumba. As Bonnie says in her post, “Unlike climbing stairs or walking on a treadmill, exergaming is a social activity. Group activities also can help seniors regain a sense of belonging and reduce social isolation. Seniors use a yoga mat to orient themselves spatially and listens to audio cues to know when they have the virtual bowling ball in hand using Xbox.”

But this is more than just about movement and exercise, it is breaking down the walls of social isolation that so commonly afflict older people in our society. There are new found friendships and the thrill of experiencing some good times together. Who said video games are bad for health? I think these active seniors would say something quite to the contrary.

For additional information on Exergaming NYC with some great photos, see this articlefrom the New York Daily News.

Bill Crounse, MD                  Senior Director, Worldwide Health                  Microsoft

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