A large, randomised control trial conducted by a team of researchers from Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and UNSW Sydney researchers has found at-home gamified step exercises are effective at preventing falls in people over the age of 65, reducing the number of falls by 26% when compared to a control group.

Falls are the leading cause of injury hospitalisation and death in Australia, representing 43% of injury hospitalisations and 42% of injury deaths. Falls requiring hospitalisation occur more frequently in adults with increasing age and are most likely to occur in the home.

NeuRA researchers led the study, which is published in Nature Medicine, in their search to find scalable and effective fall prevention strategies to address the growing impact of falls in the community.

“Regular balance-challenging exercise is effective at preventing falls, so we tried to make exercise fun and easy to do,” says Dr Daina Sturnieks, lead author of the study and Senior Research Scientist at NeuRA and UNSW Sydney.

“It was really encouraging to see that smart±step, an exercise gaming console that anyone can enjoy at home completely unassisted from a therapist, brought a benefit to older people by preventing falls.”

769 people over 65 – all living in the community – were asked to do smart±step exercise games for 120 minutes per week over the course of 12 months. Their falls data was compared to a control group, who only received a public health pamphlet about preventing falls.

The result?

Participants who received the exercise intervention showed significantly fewer falls compared to the control group: 36% of the exercise group had a fall in the study period, whereas 48.2% of the pamphlet group had a fall.

The smart±step – or exergame – also offers an additional benefit through cognitive training.

The smart±step exergames involve stepping on a mat, which acts as a controller. The exergames vary in content and range from collecting treasures to stomping on moving cockroaches or avoiding obstacles. Overall, the games require timely movements and quick thinking to keep up.

“Exergames are like a two-in-one: you get physical benefits but also you are keeping yourself cognitively challenged, which is good for the brain and healthy ageing,” said Dr Sturnieks.

“Plus, it’s fun!”

To be added to a waitlist to purchase smart±step, contact smartstep@neura.edu.au.