Elon professor & alum find Wii Fit a good fit for older adults

Still seeking the perfect holiday gift for your older relatives? Try the Wii Fit. New research by an Elon University alumna and her faculty mentor concludes that Nintendo’s Wii Fit benefits older people looking to improve and maintain balance, a key measure of fitness that both researchers say is often underappreciated by elders.

Elon University assistant professor Caroline Ketcham (left) and alumna Sarah Foushee ’10, currently a graduate student of neuroscience at Tulane University.

Sarah Foushee ’10 worked with assistant professor Caroline Ketcham in the Department of Exercise Science last spring to measure balance in both older and college-aged populations.

The results raised the eyebrows of both mentor and protégé. After just a few minutes on the Wii Fit, a gaming system with a balancing platform that allows users to interact with the television screen to get real-time feedback, older test subjects at the Twin Lakes retirement community in Burlington, N.C., noticed larger improvements in their ability to balance on one leg compared to younger Elon University student volunteers.

Ketcham presented their findings last month at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, and the New York Times has already mentioned the study in its popular “Well” blog.

Balance is a critical but overlooked form of fitness especially relevant to older adults, Ketcham said. The body begins to deteriorate at faster rates around the age of 65, and with balance, older people “tense up” when disrupted by a slip, a nudge or a sudden impact, and they more easily suffer serious injuries. “People want to be in good health,” Ketcham said. “We just don’t always know all that entails.”

During their research, the pair also saw that older test subjects initially believed themselves to have better balance than they discovered on the Wii Fit. That surprised Foushee. An exercise science major at Elon, Foushee’s research interest in the elderly developed through her service work with the Sigma Kappa sorority.

“We had them assess how good they thought their balance was. A lot of them walk regularly, jog and bike, and thought they were in decent shape,” she said. “It was upsetting to them that they thought they were in good shape with good balance, and they found out through the program that their balance had gotten worse with age.

Ketcham and Foushee said the next step in their line of research would be to measure the impact of regular Wii Fit use over time. If and when that may happen hasn’t been determined. Foushee, a native of Statesville, N.C., is enrolled in the neuroscience graduate program at Tulane University and may eventually pursue a doctorate in aging studies.

Ketcham, a member of the Elon faculty since 2007 whose past research has focused on aging populations and those with Parkinson’s disease, is at work mentoring other undergraduates. She is also currently exploring research questions related to coordination in children and dancers.

But for different reasons, the pair remains interested in the Wii Fit and other “exergaming” systems that hold potential benefits to all age groups.

“This shows how important it can be to have something like the Wii Fit so accessible, and it’s not as expensive as different types of physical therapy or other ways people may go through balance training,” Foushee said. “I enjoy being able to do research that has practical use, to work with people and help come up with solutions that can be used everyday in the home.”