A day at the arcade
When you are giving your brain a workout, you are physically working out too and you don’t realise it.
You feel you have stepped into a gym arcade where you don’t have to put coins in the machines and you can try all kinds of machines, some which I have never seen before hailing from as far away as Italy, US and Canada. I am paying a visit to Sparkd, a new brain and exercise gym in Singapore. Anna Milani, the founder and CEO, shared that she wished her granddad who had dementia was still around as her gym could have helped him. I am interested to see more.
First up, there is what looks like a tic-tac-toe wall with magnetic boxes stuck to the wall that can easily move from higher to lower, or ever further right to left. I am told that if I see a red cross, I then need to use my right hand to tap the box and if a green cross appears, use the opposite hand. Sounds easy. I take a quicker breather and the lights starts flashing around. Where is the red cross? Not right hand to green but the other one damnit, I say to myself. I am reciting the instructions in my head and then slowly but surely, I am getting into a rhythm. I think I am finally getting it!
Anna however decides to switch things around – red with the left hand and green with the right. I am bouncing all over the floor and my eyes are darting from left to right. I am laser-focused but not too pleased with the misses … and there are quite a few. I am certain I did better the first time around. Was it red with right or left? Just tap with whatever hand, I say to myself!
Time for a break, definitely not. Next, a standing column with lights; three specially on top of each other. Looks like a martial arts kicking apparatus. Pink, kick the light; blue, use your knee to kick it; and the darker blue, punch it. Anna shares a secret seeing my trepidation that the dark blue is always on top unlike the other colours, but sadly that didn’t help much. The lights go on in succession and I am trying hard to remember the instructions and at the same time, trying to knee the thing and keep my balance. That is tough.
Balance is something we tend to slowly lose as we age due to loss of muscle mass but the good news is through exercise, we can counteract this. Need to work on my balance. According to Anna, like balance, as we age we lose the ability to dual-task such as walking and talking at the same time for example. “When you ask a senior a question, sometimes he or she often stops, looks at you and then answers. Their neurons are no longer as efficient to be able to dual-task, which is what we at Sparkd train. We encourage neuroplasticity so that they are able to maintain this ability to live a longer, healthier and more independent life.”
There were other things in Anna’s gym. Elongated bars with plastic balls filled with liquid unlike the regular barbells that you see in a gym. They are great as if you accidentally drop them, you wouldn’t get a concussion or lose a limb! Senior-friendly, kid-friendly, and any-friendly! There are also kettlebells using lighter material that won’t give you the usual abrasion at the back of your hand when you need to hold one of them for an exercise.
No more looking, now to continuing participating. Anna has more stuff for me to try – there are seven objects like TV sets, each being held up by a stand. She places the sets surrounding me in an open circle and shows me that they can be moved further to give me more of a workout. No need, I thought. Very much like the wall game, Anna has me chasing the green lights when they appear. Mind you there are other colours going off in succession and you need to be focused and try not to tap using your hand the wrong box. I felt like a mouse in one of those experiments!
I did well there but now Anna asks me to use a spongy bat to hit smiley faces this time around that now appear on the screen. Not the angry face or the sad face, only the smiley face! Something like the popular arcade game called Whac-A-Mole, where you use a mallet to whack a mole that pops up from a hole! You have to continuously distinguish the image and no they don’t always appear in the same colour or even the same screen. You literally are going round in circles and getting motivated to get as many smiley faces as possible in the time allotted. I am sure many probably did better or even worse than me!
After all that, Anna lets me try out the flat bed and treadmill which did not look like the usual equipment in a gym. With a press of several keys on what looks like an iPad, the bed and treadmill tilts towards the front, back and sides. Not fast but enough to throw your normal out of balance (pun intended), and experience something new and unexpected. Why on earth go to the gym as this is more fun! Throw a medicine ball into the mix with a couple of squats and you have a workout that trains the all-important balance. All these equipment however needs supervision so private sessions are more ideal to test drive this equipment.
Finally, I am shown to a huge TV panel on one side which can be adjusted from high to low, making it particularly ideal for those in a wheelchair. Using a small light ball, I am to aim the ball at the blue round light on the screen. Again the faster you go, the better. The light can appear in the centre, or to the right or left. Let’s not forget you have to catch the ball as it bounces back. I am getting good at this too using my dominant right hand to throw and aiming it more or less around the area (FYI – still counts as good). Anything lower and a not-so-nice sound comes on. The fun ends when Anna asks me to use my left hand and yes that is when the real challenge begins. I am hearing too many not-so-nice sounds to remind me I am way off my mark. Oh well!
Next to that is a TV screen where the figure of a person on the screen is me. I need to follow the middle arrow on the screen to the direction it is pointing and hit the screen column to reach my goal, and return to the designated X marks the spot in the middle on the screen. Sounds easy, right but keep in mind there are several arrows on the left and right of the middle arrow trying to distract you from your goal. Laser-focus and don’t go the wrong direction or an X sign shows up. And if you think it is just walking to the right or left and getting the column, you are completely mistaken. Sometimes your “goals” are not always right or left, they can be diagonal to you too. It is about moving in all directions and expect again the unexpected.
A gentleman pops into the gym and walks over to the long horizontal TV screen on the side where coloured boxes appear at different places and times on the screen and he starts moving right and left, and reaches up and down. I learn from Anna that that is her husband who comes by regularly to do a session of what it seems tap as many of those boxes as possible before they slowly turn to red. If you don’t get them, the box explodes and the game is literally over. There are many boxes that appear. After one session, he checks the iPad as it shares the number of squares he got and how many he missed and he comments that he is getting better at tapping more boxes and his reflexes are getting faster. Says Anna, “I recommend even if people do these mind exercises twice a week or more, to also do other exercises outside.”
More than an hour in the arcade and I have broken a sweat. You are having too much fun that you don’t realise you are working out, not only physically but also mentally, which is a good thing, according to Anna. Physical exercise has a world of benefits – helps control your weight, reduce your risk of heart disease, improves your mental health and mood, strengthens your bones and muscles, reduces your risk of some cancers and reduces your risk of falls. It is also said that exercising one’s brain is good for memory and focus, and as you are thrown a challenge after another, your brain doesn’t get bored and doesn’t automatise the process, which is all a good thing.
A day of fun, now time to get back to work.
** Sparkd holds group sessions for seniors called Sparkd Seniors once a week for those 55 and above. The class combines low-intensity physical activity with cognitive exercises. Classes start at S$42 for a single drop-in session to S$840 for a 24-class package valid for four months. There is currently a three-class introductory package at S$99 for use within a month. There are also one-on-one private brain fitness sessions for seniors where one session is S$185.