One of the most distressing physical problems associated with aging is that our sense of balance can deteriorate. This generally comes about as a result of three things: a loss of acuity in our senses, weakening of the musculoskeletal system, and a decreasing ability to mentally assimilate information and issue the appropriate commands.
If you do start to suffer from a loss of balance you should seek medical advice, as some medical conditions like vertigo, or suffering a stroke, can also lead to problems with balance.
While falls can be shrugged off when they happen to younger people, they become more of a problem as we get into our sixties and seventies as the resulting injuries become more serious and take longer to heal.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom; there are steps you can take to help retain, and even develop, your sense of balance and – maybe surprisingly – computer games can have a role to play!
Can playing video games help as we age?
What sort of games should I play to help my balance problem?
It’s important to say that you should ask your doctor’s advice before embarking on any exercise regime if you have problems with your balance.
Assuming your doctor gives you the all clear, it’s worth investigating the sort of computer games that involve physical activity and mimicking of sports like running, jumping, and playing games with a high degree of hand/eye co-ordination like tennis and javelin.
Are video games expensive?
The latest computer games consoles do cost hundreds of pounds to buy new, plus £50 or more per game. However, we aren’t interested in the newest and fastest computer consoles because the older ones will run the sort of games we are interested in without breaking sweat.
I found an old-style Wii console on Amazon for under £50, including a couple of games. Similarly, an older Xbox 360 can be bought for well under £100. Charity shops are another good source of cheap games and consoles, and most will refund your money if you get them home and find they don’t work.
Which games should I play to help with my balance?
Games like London 2012, the Official Video Game of the 2012 Olympics and Kinect Sports only cost a few pounds to buy and offer a huge range of games and activities to try.
Alternatively, you could try a Nintendo Wii Fit Plus with Balance Board. This is a more dedicated fitness training console and game that measures calories burned, your body mass index (BMI), and your centre of gravity. You can then choose to work on each area, depending on your priorities. You could pay £70 for a new Wii console and game, or as little as £25 for a secondhand one.
Specific medical conditions
While playing a computer game on a home console can never be a replacement for proper medical rehabilitation and treatment, there are some conditions that researchers have found respond well.
Research undertaken by the Multiple Sclerosis Trust has shown that playing an interactive ’step training’ computer game led to “faster and more accurate steps”, “better balance” and faster walking. The results continued afterwards too; in the subsequent six months, participants in the study reported “fewer falls than those who had been in the control group”.
After a stroke
Computer games can even help to redevelop a sense of balance after suffering a stroke. While more conventional exercises and disciplines like Tai Chi might be needed in the early stages of recovery, organisations including the Stroke Association report that playing games on consoles like the Wii can help you in your recovery.
The social benefits of playing video games
The benefits aren’t just physical; playing computer games is a great way to gather the family around you for an evening of entertainment. Watching my wife box against our younger son was hilarious, as was the ferocity with which she threw her punches…
We regularly gather three generations together and find that games like ten-pin bowling are great levelers; the youngsters apply brute force and ignorance while my father is surprisingly graceful - and deadly accurate.
But before you pick up a controller...
The benefits of playing computer games are well proven but please do start slowly and build up. Computer games can build a sense of competitiveness that is addictive and there is no point in injuring yourself trying to keep up with a teenager. Trust me; I could barely walk the next day after challenging my son to a two-hour Olympic challenge…