EDMONTON -- Cardiologists at the University of Alberta (U of A) and computing scientists have created an at-home fitness program for pediatric heart patients.

The team built, MedBIKE, a video game-based fitness program intended for kids with heart disease or who’ve had transplants to be able to train safely and confidently at home.

The program has check-in points set up throughout every level of the game to closely monitor each patient’s energy levels, endurance and vitals.

“You’re set-up to like a video game and you go through a different world on the screen and you collect these little animals and coins and stuff and there’s lots of music,” Hannah Gilies, a MedBIKE participant, said.

According to the U of A, it’s a high-intensity interval training program on an adapted stationary bicycle, while using the bike the child’s vitals are monitored remotely by a doctor.

“It’s actually really fun,” Hannah said.

“I almost forgot I was doing the exercise part because it was just like sitting on the couch and playing a video game.”

The study said about 30 Fontan surgeries, an operation performed to treat heart abnormalities, is carried out every year at the Stollery Children’s Hospital.

Hannah has had three open-heart surgeries due to a condition called Double Outlet Right Ventricle, Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, which essentially means her heart half developed, her mother explained.

“When you’re a heart parent you don’t always know what to do, there’s no manual, there’s no guide,” Sharon Giles said.

When Hannah underwent one of her surgeries at three-and-a-half years old, Sharon said it was the most difficult one for the family to endure as they had come to know Hannah’s personality.

“When she was a toddler that one was tough, but it’s also the most rewarding because afterwards we started to feel warm hands and feet that we had never felt before.”


Zacharie Biollo, 16, was born with a ventricle missing in his heart and needed three life-saving surgeries by the time he was three.

According to the study, when his parents encouraged him to get involved in sports, he found he would run out of breath faster than other kids.

Eventually he got to participate in this new innovative program at the U of A to help heart patients like him stay active. After eight weeks on the program, Biollo started to notice an improvement in his overall strength and fitness level.

“I felt like I could do more and I doubted myself a little less,” he said.

Biollo now participates in outdoor cycling, skateboarding and boxing.

According to the U of A, the system was initially tested on patients like Biollo. Now the team is looking to expand the program to patients between the age of 10 to 18 who also have forms of congenital heart disease or have received a heart transplant.

“These patients are expected to survive into adulthood but they have reduced physical activity levels, which has been liked to worse long-term outcomes including mortality and hospitalizations,” Michael Khoury, assistant professor of pediatrics in the faculty of medicine and dentistry, said.

“We know that improved exercise capacity can help prevent or reduce these problems,” he added.


According to Khoury, most exercise programs before this were designed for in hospital training or designated facilities but children’s activity levels would drop when they returned home.

“Part of the beauty of the MedBIKE system is that you could potentially have it sent to their homes regardless of where they live,” Khoury said.

“We could still supervise their workouts from our site.”

The bike is linked up to a tablet and a video game through a TV. As the patient’s works through levels, the supervising physician tracks their blood pressure, oxygen levels and heart rate while communicating to them from afar. Khoury said parents are always present for the sessions.

Patients in the first pilot of the system had a 90 per cent participation rate, according to the U of A.

“They forget they have cardiac problems and are just simply having fun,” Pierre Boulanger, head of the advanced man-machine interfaces laboratory, said.

“I was able to learn how far I could push myself,” Hannah added.

The plan now is to take the process a step further. According to Boulanger, he wants to remotely detect more heart issues like irregular heartbeats.

In the next phase of the program, Khoury intends to make the program 12 weeks instead of eight.

“It’s important that parents of kids who have this type of condition realize that the only limits you have are the ones that you place on yourself,” Zacharie’s mom, Anik Biollo, said.

“You have to trust your child’s capabilities and not be fearful.”

“They can be kids,” Sharon added.

With files from CTV Edmonton’s Chelan Skulski