Video games can improve balance and reduce the risk of falls

Falls are a major health risk for older people. One third of seniors have a fall at least once a year, which often result in fractures and other injuries.

Nearly half the people over 70 who went to a hospital emergency department ended up staying in hospital, 10 per cent of whom left for residential care. Of those who fractured a hip during a fall, 20 per cent died within the year. 

A new program smart±step has been designed by Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), engaged seniors in exercises known to reduce falls. It uses an adapted versions of popular video games to ‘step train’ the brain for mobility, balance and cognitive function. 

Smart±step, has proved effective in improving step reaction time, speed of movement and central processing ability in two studies of people living in the community. This should translate to lowering the risk of falls. 

It is now being tested in four Allity Aged Care homes in New South Wales and Victoria ahead of a broader rollout in 2022.

NeuRA senior research scientist, Dr Daina Sturnieks, who designed the program, said smart±step could reduce falls by up to 50 per cent. 

“Balance challenging exercises can improve mobility and significantly reduce someone’s risk of having a fall, which is the biggest cause of injury-related death in older Australians,” she said. 

“Our trials show people find the games extremely enjoyable. The competitive nature of the games means that we are confident that smart±step participants will happily use the program to obtain the best possible health benefit.”

Smart±step comes with a wireless step mat and computer system, which connects to a television screen or monitor. Players navigate the games, which appear on the screen in front of them, by stepping in the correct direction, at the correct time. 

The quicker and more precise their steps are, the faster users progress through the game. 

“To make this type of exercise more enjoyable and motivating, we have taken the fun elements of a game and converted them into a program that will improve someone’s balance and thinking skills,” Dr Sturnieks said. 

NeuRA researchers recommend people use smart±step for two hours each week over the course of a year. They can then progress through the games independently with minimal support from clinicians. 

Supervising staff, such as physiotherapists, are only involved to ensure safety, particularly for frailer people. 

Glen Hurley chief operating officer of Allity Aged Care, said smart±step was a fun and safe way to help transition residents back to their regular routines. 

“We are thrilled to be able to provide residents with a scientifically proven and fun way to maintain their quality of life as they age,” he said. 

“In addition to boosting fitness and cognitive health, smart±step gives our residents a small dose of healthy competition, and we can already see how it is improving their sociability. 

“So far, our most popular games are ‘La Cucaracha’, ‘Toad Runner’ and ‘Block Stacker’. 

“The best thing about the program is that it’s so simple to use. The program is having an immediate effect on boosting morale and the motivation to be active and healthy,” he said. 

Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) is an independent, not-for-profit research institute based in Sydney

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Frank Smith was trained as an agricultural scientist in the UK, moving to WA in 1974 and shortly afterwards began lecturing at WAIT (now Curtin University) in soils and agronomy. In 1979 he joined the Agriculture Protection Board in charge of publications and media relations, studying part time for a degree in Journalism. In 1992 he spent a year as a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Later he ran a small publication company with his wife Mary-Helen. He then began freelance writing, editing and book indexing. He has written articles for more than 40 magazines in four continents and indexed more than 20 books. In 2007 he started writing for Have a Go News and gradually reduced his writing for other publications. He later took over the subediting, ensuring Have a Go News is consistent in style and highly readable. He and Mary-Helen live in a passive solar home in the Perth Hills with a varying collection of quendas and native birds.