United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Wii-hab: Veterans Get More Than Fun With Wii Rehab
Veteran Robert Engelbrecht (left) plays baseball with fellow U.S. Army Veteran Floyd Swanson on the Wii at the Houston VA Medical Center.
Veteran Robert Engelbrecht (left) plays baseball with fellow U.S. Army Veteran Floyd Swanson on the Wii at the Houston VA Medical Center.

An uppercut here, a jab there, and block the pose. Veteran Roy Heathcoat is exhausted but he isn't about to stop boxing. A knockout would not hurt him physically, but his competitive nature would never allow defeat.

Heathcoat's challenging boxing match is actually one of the games on the Wii game system.

"It's amazing how much cardio you get from Wii boxing," said the Veteran who receives care at the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "It kind of blows my mind to be sore from playing that game."

Heathcoat plays sports on the Wii to maintain his cardiovascular health and strength. As a paraplegic, this is a valuable way he can stay fit without worrying about injury.

The Wii is a video game device with wireless remotes that allows players to compete with body movement rather than merely pressing buttons with their fingers. The system includes games like Wii Sports, where players throw baseballs, swing tennis racquets, and similar activities that keep them active in the interactive game. The Wii also has the Wii Fit game, which comes with a balance board that gauges one's center of balance and core strength. Activities on Wii Fit include yoga, aerobics and strength training exercises.

Heathcoat has found the challenge of the games rewarding and entertaining. Paralyzed below the waist, he has worked consistently to use and strengthen all the muscles he can move.

"It's amazing how much strength is used with the Wii and how many of my muscles are actually worked," said Heathcoat. "The Wii takes the place of some physical therapy to get your strength back."

Heathcoat does not limit himself to the games that use arm workouts. He uses the Wii Fit balance board as well. The balance board is designed for standing, but Heathcoat gets in the prone position and places his hands where his feet would normally go.

Veteran Roy Heathcoat uses the Wii at his home in Franklin, Wisconsin, to keep fit and active, and to improve his mobility.
Veteran Roy Heathcoat uses the Wii at his home in Franklin, Wisconsin, to keep fit and active, and to improve his mobility.

A Video Game Becomes a Tool

"The Wii is a great tool to promote exercise, strengthen cognitive ability and aid visual spatial problems," said Michaele Sheehan, physical therapist at the VA Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.

The game system has proved to be useful in a variety of VA departments including physical therapy and occupational therapy. "We've had a fair number of younger Veterans with traumatic brain injury use it and older patients enjoy it quite a bit, too," added Sheehan.

Robert Engelbrecht, an army Veteran treated at the Houston VA, has used the Wii as part of his physical therapy regime for the past two years. "It's more difficult than I expected. It gives me a challenge and is more interesting than other therapy exercises."

Engelbrecht lost his left leg in combat in Iraq. He now uses a prosthetic leg and continues to regain strength and trust in his left side. "I always lean to the right so the Wii games help me lean more to the left," he said.

"Amputees don't spend much time standing on their prosthesis because they don't trust it. But when they are playing a balance game on the Wii, they don't even realize they're standing on it. It's great," said Stacy Flynn, VA physical therapist in Houston.

"The Wii is motivational and gives Veterans great feedback," said Flynn. "The visual feedback from the screen is better than me telling them they are off balance."

The Wii Fit measures the body's center of balance through sensors in the balance board. Players can get a good idea of when they are standing correctly because a dot in the middle of the TV screen will fluctuate if there is any movement or any excessive problem with leaning too far in any direction.

VA facilities with Wii game consoles have held tournaments between fellow Veterans, paired up with staff members, or against other care units.

"Rivalry is always kind of fun," said Flynn. "Their competitive nature comes out which inspires them to Veterans to improve."

The Wii does not forego traditional therapy, but it works as a good treatment modality. "A big benefit is that it's a motivation and gives patients great feedback," said Flynn. "The Wii is also cheaper and more accessible than some other equipment out there."

Equipment with similar rehabilitative results includes the BalanceMaster and the GameCycle.

"I was able to walk again."

Dan Vanderhoef, a Veteran patient at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, has found two major uses for the Wii. He uses it for muscle training and weight loss.

Five years ago, Vanderhoef was paralyzed from the neck down. VA doctors found and removed a tumor in his spinal cord, which allowed him to regain the use of his limbs.

"I became one of the unique spinal cord patients who was able to walk again," he said.

As great as this was, Vanderhoef still had challenges at hand. His new task was to regain strength while losing weight. His immobile lifestyle caused him extreme muscle loss and weight gain. Over time, Dan gained 180 pounds, which added stress to his knees.

That's where the Wii came in handy. Its variety of cardio and strength training exercises were easy on Dan's knees and he began a daily workout routine. Over the course of four months, he lost an impressive 30 pounds.

"If I use the Wii constantly, I can keep my weight down," said Vanderhoef. "I'm losing about a pound a week now."

"I wish more Wii units were used in VA medical systems," said Vanderhoef. "It would be fun to have tournaments with other VA hospitals or other care departments, plus it breaks up the monotony of day-in-and-day-out routines."

Vanderhoef is grateful for all the help he's received at the VA. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be able to move from the neck down."

By Megan Tyson, VA Staff Writer