Are Power Chair Sports Really Exercise?

Power chair sports are fun, but do they also provide a workout?

by Kathy Wechsler on April 1, 2009 - 10:37pm

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 2
Lauren Taylor takes control of the ball and speeds down the court.
Lauren Taylor takes control of the ball and speeds down the court.

 

Many kids have tried power soccer or power hockey at MDA summer camp and loved it.

Everyone agrees that these sports designed for power wheelchair users are a lot of fun — but are they also exercise? Absolutely, say the experts. And playing once a year may not be enough time to reap all the benefits power chair sports have to offer.

What's the Game?

Power soccer and hockey are similar to the traditional versions of the sports. Players are males and females of all ages. Any child who can safely operate a power wheelchair should be able to play, says Greg Carter, who co-directs the MDA/ALS Center at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

Both sports are played on a regulation-size basketball court by two teams of four. Power soccer players use foot guard attachments to kick a 13-inch ball into a net, while power hockey players hit a small plastic ball with hockey sticks, which sometimes are mounted on their chairs.

A heart-y workout

While playing power soccer or hockey isn’t a “locomotor” activity, such as walking, running or swimming, it still puts an aerobic stress on the heart, says J.P. Barfield, assistant professor of fitness and wellness at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville.

“One of the ways that we quantify physical activity is by examining or documenting that increase in heart rate,” says Barfield, who participated in studies in which power soccer players’ heart rates were measured before and after a game. Heart rates increased during games to meet the players’ energy demand.

Aerobic activity (which increases heart rate) may reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. It also can stimulate metabolism, burn calories, and improve mood and appetite.

Because the heart is stressed during power chair sports, Barfield recommends that children with diseases that affect the heart (such as Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophies and Friedreich’s ataxia) first visit their doctors.

Keep it moving

Power sport players may be sitting in their chairs, but they’re still getting exercise.

“You’re balancing yourself in your chair, and as you’re moving, you’re shifting your body weight continuously to try to move where you’re pointing your chair,” Barfield says. “In muscular dystrophy, we see that kids are ‘exercising’ while playing in a motorized chair just because of the other movements that are occurring.”

No matter their ability level, children try to get the most possible movement out of their bodies during play.

For example, 12-year-old Lauren C. Taylor of Lewisville, Texas, used to have her hockey stick taped to her wheelchair, because her congenital muscular dystrophy affects her arms. Eventually, she decided to try holding and swinging the stick instead of attaching it, because her teammates held and swung their hockey sticks. By challenging herself to keep up with her peers, Lauren gained some physical benefits.

“I use my arm strength to hit the ball, so my left arm has gotten a little stronger since I started,” she says. “My left fingers are a little more flexible than my right, considering that’s the arm I play with.”

“Sometimes she’ll move her legs like she’s running,” says her mother, Faith. “It’s just overall — she’s yelling, so she’s exercising her lungs, and moving that stick exercises her arms and her shoulders.” The sport also seems to help with Lauren’s endurance.

Power soccer allows Joseph Miller, left, to make friends of all ages.
Power soccer allows Joseph Miller, left, to make friends of all ages.

 

Dena Miller of Haverhill, Mass., considers power soccer to be a great workout for her 6-year-old son, Joseph, who has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA2). When he started playing, he’d need a nap after practice, but now he stays awake and seems to have more stamina throughout the day.

“Everyone, even the adults in chairs, are tired once they’re done — it’s just great to see them be able to experience that release of exhaustion from a game well played,” says Dena. “I played a lot of team sports and really didn’t think he’d ever have that feeling of ‘ahh,’ totally tired from a great game.”

Putting driving skills to the test

Power chair sports also can improve coordination because the body learns to process information faster, says Greg Carter.

Because players must zoom up and down the court without running into other players, practicing their coordination and driving skills is a must, says Dominic Russo, president of the United States Power Soccer Association (USPSA) in Carmel, Ind.

Each Saturday, Joseph’s team spends three hours running drills to sharpen its wheelchair maneuvering skills and preparing both physically and mentally for power soccer plays. During drills, team members race in and out of cones, then stop suddenly and drive backwards through them. Dena has noticed these practices paying off.

“I thought he was a great driver before; now he can blow your mind,” she says, noting Joseph excels at driving full speed backward. “He loves to show off his driving for people.”

Power hockey adds an extra element of eye-hand coordination for players who hold their sticks.

Kickin' it with friends

Barfield says the chance to socialize is one of the greatest benefits of power chair sports.

“There aren’t many activities that are designed for people with neuromuscular disorders, so the social opportunities that children have are limited,” he says. “But power soccer is certainly one outlet for individuals with muscular dystrophy to be able to interact with all sorts of individuals.”

Not only is this good for social skills but it also encourages independence, he notes.

Peer connections make children more likely to want to stay active so they can be independent and keep seeing their friends.

Like all athletics, power chair sports teach life skills such as self-confidence, discipline, teamwork, sportsmanship, independence and strategic options, says Russo, whose two children, Natalie, 20, and J.C., 18, both with SMA2, play power soccer for the Ball State University Cardinals.

Lauren Taylor admits she was a little intimidated when she began playing hockey at her local YMCA. She was the youngest player and the only girl.

“At first I was the shyest one there,” says Lauren. “Then once I became friends with everyone, I became one of the most outgoing and outspoken.”

Adds her mother, “I’d say confidence is the biggest thing that I see from her, because every time she makes a goal, or outplays somebody, she just lights up.”

Faith says there’s a friendship and camaraderie that comes with being on a team and cheering for one another. She thinks it’s good for Lauren to learn to play along with others, and to experience winning and defeat.

Power sports help level the playing field, giving children with disabilities common interests with able-bodied kids.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a player say they’ve always gone to soccer, basketball, softball games to cheer on their brother or sister and now their brother, sister, mom, dad are here to cheer them on,” says Russo.

Players aren’t the only ones getting benefits from power chair sports, says Russo. Parents enjoy being around other parents with similar situations to swap stories, advice and support.

“Power soccer has been so great for Joseph’s dad and me, because a few years ago we didn’t think this possible,” Dena says. “I can finally say I’m a soccer mom, and that’s priceless to me.”

For power chair sports resources, see InfoQuest.

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