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This Gaming Wearable Helps Relieve Back Pain

Valedo's game and sensors encourage back exercise, but the games need more variety and the price is high.

Olivia Merrion for Re/code

There it is again: Stinging back pain. It’s a reminder of the couch you lifted without bending your knees, or the chubby baby you pick up so often. You might swallow a few Aleves and try to stretch, or you may even set up a massage appointment to get some temporary relief.

But it keeps coming back.

This week, I tested a new wearable that is actually a sneaky tech solution to chronic lower back pain. Valedo is made up of two wireless sensors that stick on your lower back and chest using special included stickers. You wear them while playing a corresponding game on your iPhone or iPad, and your physical movements send a game character through an obstacle course, grabbing jewels as it goes.

The sneaky part? These “gaming” moves are actually exercises that are meant to strengthen your back muscles, which can reduce back pain.

Here’s perhaps the more painful part: Valedo costs $359.

Keep in mind that this is an FDA-listed device, which gives it more credibility than some other gadgets. Hocoma, the nearly 20-year-old Swiss company behind Valedo, makes robotic training devices to rehabilitate patients affected by motor disorders like strokes or multiple sclerosis. In 2010, it launched a professional version of Valedo for physical therapists and rehab centers. The version I tested, which consumers can buy, came out in November.

Olivia Merrion for Re/code

But for how long are you supposed to play games before these exercises pay off? A Hocoma spokesman says some people see improvements in flexibility and deep back muscles after using Valedo for 15 to 20 minutes, four to five times a week over two weeks.

I’ve been using Valedo for the past week, and over that time I’ve noticed the muscles in my lower back feeling a bit stronger. I have occasional lower back pain, but it hasn’t been flaring up lately, so I can’t say specifically whether or not Valedo solved my back pain for me.

As I used Valedo, I forgot I was exercising. It felt a lot like being tricked into eating healthier food as a kid. It reminded me of a time when my Mom swapped ground turkey for ground beef in her famous taco salad and I was none the wiser, gobbling up extra helpings.

We all know we should eat healthy food — just like we know we should do special exercises or physical therapy for injuries or chronic pain. But it’s a lot easier to sit around watching “Downton Abbey.”

After downloading the free Valedo iOS app (Android is coming later this year), I stuck two sensors on myself — one on my lower back and another in the upper center area of my chest. Helpful diagrams in the app walked me through this, as well as a series of tests that measured my range of motion.

Olivia Merrion for Re/code

Then I used Bluetooth to connect the Valedo sensors with my iPhone. The sensors hold a battery charge of two weeks if you use them at the company’s recommendation of 20 minutes a day. To charge them again, an included USB cord plugs into a computer and simultaneously juices up both sensors in 90 minutes.

The sensors themselves are lightweight and easy to wear at just .63 of an ounce each. These small, white ovals blink to signal they are connected to your device using Bluetooth.

But sticking these things on and pulling them off (fair warning to people with hairy backs) is a little irritating. One day after finishing my games, I forgot I had them on under my clothes until my toddler noticed a strange bump in my shirt and yanked the front sensor off, which stung a bit.

The Valedo games can be used while holding an iPhone or iPad. In most cases, I chose to prop my phone up on a shelf in front of me. If you wanted a bigger screen, you could use a mirroring service like AirPlay on your Mac or TV.

As I started the Valedo game, a robot representing me flew through the air and leaned left, right or forward to catch jewels for points. My progress unlocked different moves, like the forward flexion and the twist. And finishing games unlocked access to more districts in the game’s central village, including the Hip District, Torso District and Floor District, where floor exercises become part of the game.

The early levels were easy. But the difficulty increased as I kept playing. If my robot flashed red, this told me my movements were slightly wrong, so I would adjust my posture to fix them. If the robot had smoke coming out of it, then I knew I was really doing the wrong moves and made more extreme corrections.

The sensors were surprisingly sensitive, picking up even small twists or bends as I went. A representation of my body showed up in the lower-right corner, so I could see how my body posture looked.

Though my robot’s methods of transportation changed as I went along — like jumping from pedestal to pedestal rather than flying — the Valedo games were relatively similar: The robot collected jewels as it went along. I think a little variety in these games would go a long way, like movements that drove a race car, for example.

Of course, Valedo isn’t the only sensor solution that might nudge you toward “games” as exercise. Microsoft’s Xbox One with Kinect does this with Xbox Fitness. The Kinect camera sees you and tracks your moves with impressive precision, as I discovered during testing. But this setup costs you $500 for the equipment, and more for the Xbox Fitness workouts, which range from $9 to $60 each.

Hocoma Inc.

Other gadgets like the $99 Lumo Lift and its predecessor, the Lumo Back, include sensors you wear to maintain good posture. They vibrate to nudge you when you slouch, and track your daily data in an app. I tested Lumo Back, and found its band sensor effective, however uncomfortable. The newer Lumo Lift is much smaller.

But the Valedo exercise games are a more concentrated series of exercises that build up back strength. I liked them enough to want to keep doing them, though I admit that I didn’t test them for an extended time period.

And as pricey as Valedo is, the cost of repeat visits to a physical therapist or massage therapist can also add up really quickly. My back pain isn’t bad enough to merit the expense of Valedo, but yours might be well worth this investment.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.