Our Scholars’ stories: Lai tests virtual reality gaming exercise benefits at a local high school for youth with disabilities

Lai tests virtual reality gaming exercise benefits at a local high school for youth with disabilities

Byron Lai, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Division of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is researching a new way to help children with disabilities stay healthy.

Lai’s project, “Preliminary implementation and development of an enjoyable virtual reality exercise program for the prevention of cardiometabolic disease among children with disabilities in school settings,” allows participants to do their rehabilitation exercises through video games.

The goal is to see if virtual reality gaming and exercise can help children with disabilities avoid health problems related to their heart and metabolism.

Video games that improve health

“The purpose of the project is to work with a community engagement group to develop a protocol for implementing a research-tested therapeutic exercise program for youth with disabilities at a high school,” says Lai.

Lai is testing this exercise program in a special physical education class at a high school. He wants to see what impacts the program has on exercise-related outcomes like physical strength and how well the heart and lungs work.

A total of 12 children will be included in the study to start. This project will include a Community Engagement Group of three members from the school where the intervention will be delivered, a child with cerebral palsy, their caregiver, and a Special Physical Education teacher.

“The project is being supported by school staff and, most importantly, being delivered by a young man with a physical and cognitive disability, who was a student at the high school,” says Lai.

“Should this project be successful, it could open up a means for employment for youth with disabilities, when the project is delivered on a national scale. This project is also the first collaborative project with the community by the Division of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine at UAB and Children’s Hospital of Alabama, which could open doors for further projects and services.”

Lai says the group will meet regularly to talk about how the program is delivered and what changes might be needed.

If this study shows the exercise program works well, Lai will use the study results to apply for additional funding to conduct a larger study to confirm if it really helps kids with disabilities stay healthy. “This project will serve as a model for helping other schools in a larger trial,” he says.

The findings of this study will inform an upcoming NIHR01 application to confirm the effectiveness of the virtual reality exercise program on cardiometabolic health among children with physical disabilities.