VirtualGym would offer Alberta seniors access to customized in-home exercises

A high-tech research project developed out of the University of Alberta is giving seniors access to workouts and personal training wherever they are — and whatever their capabilities — through a virtual gym.

“It is another tool in our toolkit of helping motivate people to exercise,” said Eleni Stroulia, a computing science professor at the University of Alberta professor.

“Seniors across the world — but particularly in Canada — may feel that they do not have easy access to social exercises, they may or may not want to go to the gym.

“Sometimes, as our mobility declines, we may feel embarrassed to fail to do the exercises, so having the ability to have a description and guidance in your own home about what you could/should be doing is something we hope will encourage people to exercise more, and more consistently,” Stroulia said.

“In some sense, we’re offering a service platform that will make exercise meaningful and available to everyone without actually requiring a therapist being right there and monitoring the person exercising.”

VirtualGym uses Kinect, a motion-senor system originally designed for Xbox video game consoles.

It gives personalized feedback to users as they exercise by following an avatar on screen who demonstrates each move. The senior’s motions are shown as a grey shadow to the avatar coach’s movements.

“When I reach the position, what I see on my display is a grey shadow superimposed on the coach,” Stroulia explained.

“So my body is visualized as the grey shadow, and then when the grey shadow and the coach match exactly, I know I’ve reached my objective.

“It provides personalized exercises so a therapist can define the degree of difficulty the exercises present… and it monitors how close the senior performs the exercise relative to the prescribed demonstration,” she added.

The platform was designed by a team of U of A researchers from the faculties of science and rehabilitation medicine, along with help from AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network.

The team has tried out various iterations of the program with seniors in Calgary and Edmonton and, using their feedback, has made it visually simpler and more user-friendly. It’s also adaptable and offers custom exercises that cater to a person’s abilities or restrictions.

“When I use it as a user, what I get is a demonstration that has been designed with my functional mobility in mind,” Stroulia said.

“As a matter of fact, people who are wheelchair-bound can use VirtualGym because the system knows they’re sitting and ignores all the demonstration parts that may involve the lower limbs.”

Adjustments are still being made but the hope is to market it widely to make it accessible early next year.

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