In 2004 at the age of 28, after a year of confusion, fear and test after test, Tricia Pell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It wasn’t long before she had more assistive devices than her grandma. One cane turned to two (one for each vehicle), the handicapped license plate soon followed (her neurologist didn’t blink before he said, “okay”), then the freebie walker came out from her closet (where she had hidden it so she wouldn’t have to look at it), and now she needs a wheelchair for distances. But there is one new “aid” that’s making a surprising difference in her quality of life: the Nintendo Wii Fit.
Throughout my pre-MS life, I loved many different sports—dancing, roller skating, bowling, and long walks just for the sake of walking. That post-MS life includes balance problems so significant that I can’t do any of that anymore.
I desperately wanted to do anything resembling the old me. The old me didn’t walk into walls, fall over in the dark or need to hold railings tightly to get up stairs. I could run, jump, skip, dance, skate and bowl without a worry.
Then a few years ago I started playing the Nintendo Wii, a video game system. I loved that it involved light physical activity and reminded me (a little) of the fun I used to have playing sports. And many of the games can be adapted to sitting if need be.
Early in 2011, I was asked to be a participant in a balance study for people with MS being run by primary investigator Maureen Dunn out of Hope College in Holland, Michigan. The portion of the study I was in used the Wii Fit—the balance games specifically—to see if the gaming system would help with everyday balance in multiple sclerosis.
It was frustrating at first—I kept falling off the balance board! The balance board is a small platform that comes with the Wii Fit that you stand on while gaming. It senses the motion of your body and makes corresponding motions on the screen with your character. Because of my poor balance I couldn’t complete many of the games, had very low scores, and I wondered if I would ever be able play the games well.
At the beginning of each session of play, the system records your center of balance and then shows you where that center of balance was. The system helps you to recognize where the balance needs to be (indicated by a blue dot in the center of the screen) and how it feels when your body is in the correct position.
My body has lessened sensations on the right side. Until I played the game, I had no idea that I was leaning quite far to my right because that’s the only way my body felt like I was putting the same amount of weight on both feet. After many sessions, I learned the way my body felt when it was properly alignedand though it felt like I was putting more weight on the left side, I now know that’s how I’m supposed to feel and am much more balanced in all my daily activities.
Once I learned how to balance, I started to get much better at the games.My favorites are Table Tilt and Table Tilt Plus. I also used Ski Slalom, Penguin Slide and the Balance Bubble games in the study.
I now walk faster, straighter and feel more confident in my balance. Other than the benefit of improved balance, there’s the benefit of moderate exercise without even having to leave the house and fun while you’re at it. The game can be adapted to your needs and can be played with a chair in front of you for stability. A company (www.Floor-Board.com) even manufactures a base for wheelchair users as well. Many other non-Wii Fit games can also be used while seated either for those in wheelchairs or for other mobility-restricted individuals.
You don’t need much space but, to be realistic and safe, I’d estimate having about 6 feet of free space in either direction (in case you fall) is a good idea. It is recommended that you have your board about 5 feet from the sensor bar (bar that goes up by your TV to “see” you while you’re playing). I actually have mine about 4 feet away and about a 2-3 foot clearance on either side of me. I have never fallen while playing, though. If you are prone to falling, making sure that there is nothing you can fall onto or into is important.
The Wii Fit also has yoga and more aerobic games as well for those with fewer restrictions so you can definitely challenge yourself with more difficult games if you are able. I have continued to use the Wii Fit since the end of the study (official results won’t be published until late 2011) and I have continued to see improvements in balance and coordination. I plan to keep using the Wii as long as I am capable of doing so. Not only is it a fun way to spend time, the games helped my balance significantly.
Doing the virtual hula-hoop.
Your virtual body virtually hula-hooping.
Top 5 Wii Fit Tips - Leave yourself enough room to move safely - Keep at it—make it part of your regular fitness routine - Rent the games before buying if you are unsure - Be patient, be patient, be patient - Challenge yourself; be fearless!