Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Virtual sports can serve as actual exercise for seniors

The Nintendo Wii moves into county facilities for older residents with sports tournaments to follow

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Leah L. Jones⁄Special to The Gazette
Fran Winter of Illinois plays tennis on the Nintendo Wii at Margaret Schweinhaut Senior Center in Silver Spring with the help of recreational specialist Angie Walker of Silver Spring.
For senior citizens no longer able to participate in sports, interactive video games are providing an outlet for exercise and competition.

A Nintendo Wii video game made its debut with seniors on May 1 at Margaret Schweinhaut Senior Center in Silver Spring. It was first session of a program sponsored by the Montgomery County Department of Recreation where county seniors can exercise and socialize using the motion-sensor game system.

‘‘It’s the same thing as tennis or bowling with a lot of the exercise and without the physical strain,” said Lorene Weis, 82, of Silver Spring who recently bought a Wii and vowed to play an hour per day after seeing its popularity during the program. ‘‘My arm is a little tired, but other than that, there were no side effects other than enjoyment.”

Wii games are played by combining the motion of a handheld remote controller and the use of the controller’s buttons to manipulate the on-screen player.

For tennis, seniors would locate the ball on the 42-inch TV screen and, using the controller as a racket, ‘‘hit” it with a forehand or backhand stroke as the ball moved closer.

In bowling, players had to simulate an underhand rolling motion and then push a button on the remote control to release the ball.

‘‘When I got up, I shocked myself,” Weis said. ‘‘The first ball I threw I had a strike, and that really amazed me.”

Golf requires a smooth swing, using the remote as a club.

The program at Schweinhaut was attended by about 20 seniors, who cheered on their peers and jostled for position to play next. The television was set up in the front of an activity room with an open area for two competitors to hit the bowling lanes, the golf links or the tennis court. While some seniors initially struggled to avoid a gutter ball or serve a tennis ball in play, jabbing the air with the controller, most eventually got the hang of it, eliciting cheers from onlookers.

‘‘I’m not into computers, so this is new all around,” said Ann Gallo, 84, Weis’ neighbor whose son recently bought her a Wii. ‘‘I used to love to bowl when I was younger, though.”

Weis and Gallo said they have already made plans to play Wii together in their own homes now that they know how to operate the different games.

The county’s recreation department will also bring the Wii to Long Branch Senior Center, Holiday Park Senior Center and Damascus Senior Center over the next month, with tournaments planned.

It is the first Wii program sponsored by the county recreation department, but Riderwood, a retirement community in Silver Spring, started one last summer that continues to be popular, said Dan Dunne, a spokesman for Riderwood.

Angie Walker, a recreation specialist for Montgomery County, said the program was devised as a way for seniors to get some exercise while also learning a youthful activity.

‘‘It’s something that their kids and grandkids are playing,” Walker said. ‘‘It’s something they can participate in together.”

Sarah McKechnie, director of the Senior Fit program at Holy Cross Hospital, said her program does not offer Wii activities, but the level of physical involvement for the games work great for seniors.

‘‘It’s sort of a novel idea right now, and anything that motivates people to work out is extremely beneficial to their health,” she said. ‘‘The population that benefits the most from exercise is seniors.”

Linda Winter was on hand to watch her mother Fran, 85, relive the sports she loved before age made golf and tennis too physically demanding.

‘‘I want to get her back to doing the real thing,” Winter said of her mother’s favorite sports. ‘‘This might inspire her a little and help her remember how much she loved it.”

‘‘It brought back the memory and impulse of going through the strokes,” said Fran Winter, a Wheaton resident. ‘‘I enjoyed the experience and I’d like to give it another try.”

Betty Timer, director of senior adult programs at Schweinhaut, said she has long wanted to bring a Wii to her center but never had the funds. Wiis are in high demand, and the consoles alone cost $250 to $300.

‘‘When I was contacted [by the recreation department] about a Wii, I’m sure I was the first to write back,” Timer said. ‘‘I said, ‘Absolutely, how soon can you get here?’”