The bowling's virtual, but tournament's real

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There's a bowling tournament going on now that the players could never have imagined when they were younger.

The competition uses the 3-year-old Nintendo Wii gaming system and the players -- elderly residents in assisted-living homes -- are making virtual strikes with motion-sensing controllers that give them a remarkable degree of interaction with the game.

Facilities in the tournament are Juniper Village at Huntingdon Ridge, North Huntingdon; Newhaven Court at Lindwood, Weatherwood Manor, Village Angela at St. Anne Home, Greensburg Care Center, Oak Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, the Rehabilitation and Nursing Center at Greater Pittsburgh and Redstone Highlands, all in or near Greensburg; and Green Meadows and Barnes House, both in Latrobe. Four seniors from each of 10 facilities are taking part in the tournament, which began last week and will end next week. The average age of the bowlers is 82.

Carol Trent, an exercise physiologist, came up with the idea. She leads the Pittsburgh operations of Senior Helpers, which offers services in the Wii bowlers' facilities and has 260 franchises in 37 cities.

"Keeping people active is really important," Ms. Trent said. "Wii gives people the opportunity to experience sports they would not otherwise be able to do. Especially for seniors. They can't pick up the bowling ball any more."

The winning team will receive a free lunch, and a trophy. There also will be an award for the individual high scorer. But for most of the participants, just participating is reward enough.

Wii has made it possible for Joe Jones, 76, the star of the Juniper Village virtual bowling team, to continue to play a sport he loves.

"I'm a bowler. I love to bowl," he said. "This gives me a chance to do this."

Suzanne Otto, another member of the Juniper Village team, agreed.

"I was a real good bowler," she said. "I had 13 trophies and medals."

Virtual exercise isn't as good as actual exercise, but it's a lot better than physicians once thought.

"It used to be you had to have 20 minutes of exercise three times a week [to realize a health benefit]," said Dr. Michael Boninger, director of UPMC's Institute for Rehabilitation and Research. "We're learning now that anything is better than nothing."

Wii and other game consoles benefit not only those like Joe Jones who can no longer exercise as once they did, but also those who've never really liked to exercise.

"For seniors who are not inclined to exercise, it's a way of getting them moving that they would not otherwise do," said Dr. Barbara Swan, director of the division of physical medicine and rehabilitation for both Western Pennsylvania Hospital and Allegheny General Hospital.

West Penn has a Wii console in its therapy department, Dr. Swan said.

A professor in the division of geriatic medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. Stephanie Studenski is one of the nation's foremost authorities on mobility, balance disorders, and falls in older adults. Dr. Studenski recently completed a clinical trial using the game Dance, Dance Revolution.

"I'm particularly interested in it as an exercise platform for aging boomer women," Dr. Studenski said. "I'm a postmenopausal woman and I never could find a form of exercise I could stick with. They bore me."

Dr. Studenski tried Dance, Dance Revolution, a video game series produced by Konami, at a Dave & Buster's restaurant two years ago, and got hooked. She's lost 50 pounds since she started working out with it.

"The playing aspect really helps motivation and engagement," she said.

Other women feel the same way about DDR, Dr. Studenski's clinical trial revealed.

"All the women who signed up signed up because they couldn't stick with an exercise program," she said. "They were supposed to do 30 minutes [of DDR] twice a week. Seventy-five percent of the women asked to do extra sessions because they said they were having so much fun."

All the women who took part in the six-week trial improved their balance and reduced their blood pressure, Dr. Studenski said. The women who were overweight lost an average of five pounds.

Jack Kelly can be reached at or 412-263-1476.


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