University of Texas at Arlington study looks at preventing falls in older adults

After 15 weeks of working out using the Wii video game, Dot Page packs a powerful punch in the virtual boxing ring.

At 87, she has knocked out much younger opponents and proved that no one is ever too old to start exercising. As a participant in a fall-prevention study at the University of Texas at Arlington, Page said she's getting her body back.

"With the program, I feel like I'm 20 years younger," she said. "Of course that still puts me up to about 70."

Page was among about 40 people to participate in the study, aimed at identifying physical factors that contribute to falls and developing rehabilitative interventions to prevent them.

The participants, ages 70 to 90, worked out three times a week with a Wii or in an exercise class. A control group did neither.

The improvements in strength and balance were not huge but were significant, said Christopher Ray, a kinesiology assistant professor at UT-Arlington.

"We saw some good benefits in preserving function and maintaining independence," he said. "That's really a win when you consider that we don't typically see improvements in this age group."

Wii fun

Participants in the Wii and exercise classes could walk farther, do more chair stands and balance better than before they started the program. In some cases, those in the control group got worse.

Perhaps the biggest benefit was the improved quality of life for many participants.

"It was work, but it was enjoyable," said Martha Erwin of Fort Worth. "I feel like my health, balance and energy improved."

Some in the Wii group had so much fun that they bought their own systems. With Nintendo's Wii Sports, users hold a remote control wand to mimic swinging a tennis racket, rolling a bowling ball or participating in other sports.

"The Wii, I just loved it," Erwin said. "I figure all the exercise I can get will help me some."

The Wii was a huge hit among the older adults, who kept score of their wins and losses from day to day, Ray said.

"The beauty of Wii is it combines the best of both worlds: the wisdom of age and the strength of youth," he said.

Preventing falls

The Wii gave participants the chance to try their hand at everything from bowling to downhill skiing. As their strength improved, they wore 10-pound weight vests while they played.

The Wii was physically and mentally challenging, requiring participants to shift their body weight, for example, to hit a soccer ball with their head one time or dodge a shoe the next.

"It was not just a fitness game," Ray said. "It required them to think while they played."

Ray said he hopes to use evidence-based research to help older adults gain strength, flexibility and mobility.

The program also aims to prevent falls that can lead to disability and death among older adults.

Falls are the leading cause of injury deaths among people 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty to 30 percent of those who fall suffer injuries that reduce mobility and independence and increase the risk of premature death.

The program was also designed to build confidence and reduce participants' fear of falling, a common concern among this population. The fear of falling often leads to changes that increase the risk, Ray said.

Participants in the first session gave it high marks and plan to return to see more improvements.

Page said that before the study, she was not walking at all.

"My left leg hurt, so I quit," she said. "But the program required five minutes of walking, so I just toughed it out and before long I wasn't having any pain."

Now she's so hooked on exercising that she plans to return for the next 15-week session with her husband, Leland, 90.

Erwin has been so impressed with the results that she also plans to continue.

"The main reasons for the course is to keep the elderly more stable on their feet," she said. "It really worked."

JAN JARVIS, 817-390-7664