Researchers are using virtual reality (VR) to encourage South Australians with an intellectual disability to undertake regular physical exercise through a high-tech gaming program.

The program is designed to build positive exercise habits and reduces their increased risk of early-onset cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart attacks.

Working with 16 participants at the Bedford Group, Flinders University researchers Dr June Alexander and Dr Joyce Ramos are running a VR-based exercise program over eight weeks to motivate participants with an intellectual disability to undertake intensive exercise routines and improve their long-term approach to physical fitness.

The program requires the volunteers to complete a one-hour supervised session three times a week using a commercially available VR system. Each session incorporates 50 minutes of exercise using a popular game.

Researchers monitor the participants heart rate, perceived exertion rate and intensity volume during the trial and record the results to track their physical improvements.

“Most Australians with developmental disabilities don’t meet the globally recommended minimum amounts of physical activity for good health, which significantly increases their risk of cardiovascular disease,” Alexander said. “The tendency for people with an intellectual disability to avoid regular exercise has been attributed to low motivation and reduced access to mainstream health and fitness services such as gyms, so the aim of this innovative VR program is to help participants overcome these barriers.”

The exercise program will compare the overall impact of a regular and tailored VR activity against participants who don’t receive the experimental treatment.

“Our VR health study is developing evidence-based systems that can improve physical activity level and the quality of life for people with an intellectual disability despite barriers to access, particularly those living in regional and rural locations around Australia without easy access to similar on-site services,” Ramos said.

Bedford chief operating officer, Rachael Griffiths said this research on the benefits of the technology on fitness levels for people with disability is believed to be a world first. “It is a positive step forward using a fun and engaging way to stay active and increase the likelihood of sticking to an exercise routine.”