Getting a leg up on fun

January 3, 2014

Eva Elder, 12, revels in a wild game of Mario Cart as she cycles to rebuild her leg strength on the new Virtual Bike, watched over by her therapist Jessica Hung, at Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

‘Virtual Bike’ brings gaming dimension to rehab cycling

Story by Gregory Kennedy; Photo by Dale MacMillan

EDMONTON — Eva Elder can’t tell you how many minutes she’s been riding the new Virtual Bike at Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, as she rebuilds her leg strength after surgery. The 12-year-old puts her mettle to the pedals like she’s a Tour de France contender — because if she stops — so does the crazy-fun game of Super Mario Kart on the big-screen TV in front of her.

“The pedals on my bike are like the gas pedal in a car,” she tells a local reporter. “I even forget I’m pedalling when I’m playing. I’m too busy racing my Kart.”

The Virtual Bike is a local high-tech invention that’s spinning rehabilitation into a fun, game-filled bike ride that motivates young patients at the Glenrose Rehabilitation to work harder on their therapy, which can lead to faster recoveries and better outcomes.

The Virtual Bike melds an exercise cycle with a Wii U console and games, steering-wheel controller and big-screen TV to help pediatric patients who require lower-limb therapy regain strength, co-ordination and reactive skills.

Repetitions are absolutely picking up for Eva Elder, born with mild cerebral palsy, who recently underwent surgery to straighten her left leg and lengthen muscles to give her ease of movement.

Eva’s mother Charlene Elder says the Grade 7 student loves to bake cookies with her, adores animals and enjoys crafts and time on the family computer.

“At first Eva had trouble pedaling full rotations on the Virtual Bike,” says Elder, “but she persisted — ‘I can do it! I can do it!’ — and now that she can ride it, she says she loves it. The care is awesome at the Glenrose.”

“Time flies when you’re playing a game, when you’re challenging yourself, and when you’re achieving the next level,” says Vickie Buttar, Rehabilitation Technology Leader at the Glenrose. “Twenty minutes or an hour fly by, and our patients remain fully engaged in their therapy. We can get way more repetitions done, and our patients improve accordingly.”

The bike is currently being used by children or teens with cerebral palsy, as well as orthopedic disorders or brain injuries, although adult and geriatric patients will soon begin using the bike as well. Previously with cycling therapy, the exercise bike might be parked facing a white wall, poster or window, with puppets or stuffed animals on the handlebars to keep a young patient motivated.

“But after a few minutes of cycling, any of those static, non-engaging activities become boring or tiresome and then they may not want to do any more repetitions,” says Buttar.

The Virtual Bike is the result of an ongoing partnership between clinicians at the Glenrose, an Alberta Health Services facility, and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

The idea, from therapists Vance Pilipchuk and Barbara Lopetinsky, evolved into an eight-month design project for NAIT Bachelor of Technology in Technology Management students who modified a recumbent bike so the rider could control a Wii console on a virtual adventure.

“The partnership has been a huge benefit to us,” says Michael Cimolini, Technology Service Leader at the Glenrose. “It’s been absolutely instrumental in advancing the technology here. We also benefit by using off-the-shelf equipment, which tends to bring the price way down. Meanwhile, each student puts in at least 80 or 90 hours. If we went to an engineering firm to do that work, we’d be looking at about $18,000. That’s money our partnership has saved us.”

Dr. David Carpenter, Dean of NAIT’s School of Information Communication and Engineering Technologies, says: “We’re very proud of our partnership with the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital. As one of Canada’s leading polytechnics, NAIT provides students with hands-on, real-world experience and the opportunity to engage in applied research. This project is helping to improve the lives of patients and demonstrates the essential role NAIT has in Alberta.”

Next year, NAIT students will design custom games to provide maximum therapy value for the Virtual Bike.

The Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation funded technology costs of about $2,000 in the creation of the Virtual Bike, in support of its goal to help more patients live the lives they want to live.

Gordon Wilson, Chair of the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation, says the Virtual Bike is an invention that keeps the Glenrose at the forefront of rehabilitative care and is an example of what the Glenrose Foundation makes possible.

“Our foundation exists to support the outstanding work done by the hospital and its exemplary team of physicians and staff,” says Wilson. “This includes the Glenrose-NAIT partnership, which helps to drive our continuous pursuit of care improvements that allow patients to positively shape their quality of life.”

As she watches her daughter ride enthusiastically for almost an hour — with the energy of a perpetual-motion machine — Charlene Elder says: “I’m blown away by this. Eva would do this for hours at home, if we had a bike like this there.”

For her part, Eva says she can’t wait to get back into soccer and skating — and going for long walks with her two American Eskimo puppies, Polar and Biggie.