Powered wheelchairs are an essential technology to support mobility, yet their use is associated with a high level of sedentarism that can have negative health effects for their users. People with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) start using a powered wheelchair in their early teens due to the loss of strength in their legs and arms. There is evidence that low-intensity exercise can help preserve the functional abilities of people with DMD, but options for exercise when sitting in a powered wheelchair are limited.
In this paper, we present the design and the feasibility study of a new version of the MOVit device that allows powered-wheelchair users to exercise while driving the chair. Instead of using a joystick to drive the wheelchair, users move their arms through a cyclical motion using two powered, mobile arm supports that provide controller inputs to the chair. The feasibility study was carried out with a group of five individuals with DMD and five unimpaired individuals. Participants performed a series of driving tasks in a wheelchair simulator and on a real driving course with a standard joystick and with the MOVit 2.0 device.
We found that driving speed and accuracy were significantly lowered for both groups when driving with MOVit compared to the joystick, but the decreases were small (speed was 0.26 m/s less and maximum path error was 0.1 m greater). Driving with MOVit produced a significant increase in heart rate (7.5 bpm) compared to the joystick condition. Individuals with DMD reported a high level of satisfaction with their performance and comfort in using MOVit.
These results show for the first time that individuals with DMD can easily transition to driving a powered wheelchair using cyclical arm motions, achieving a reasonable driving performance with a short period of training. Driving in this way elicits cardiopulmonary exercise at an intensity found previously to produce health-related benefits in DMD.