Seniors participating in study feel benefits of biking

A two-year study by Union College and Skidmore College is measuring the effects of exercise on peopl

Eighty-eight-year-old Harry Steven pedaled and pedaled to try to capture the dragons on the screen in front of him.

Steven was inside, playing a chase game on his Expresso bicycle at the Glen Eddy. He moved his handles in the direction he wanted to go, as the video screen showed a landscape of colored coins and dragons. The goal is to grab the coin and then get the dragon that matches the same color.

Stevens was dressed for the part, complete with a bicycle shirt that said “Cycling the Erie Canal.”

He used to be an avid cyclist and still rides a real bike once a week. This is different from real bike riding.

“You have to climb hills and so far, here you don’t have to do it,” he said.

Steven and others were part of a recent two-year study by Union College and Skidmore College to measure the effects of exercise on people age 50 and older. The project was possible through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Cay Anderson-Hanley, an assistant professor of psychology at Union College, said the goal of the study was to explore whether this type of visual stimulation and games could improve cognition more than just regular exercise. At the start of the study, seniors underwent a complete physical including blood work and bone density and muscle mass screening, as well as challenges to test their physical and mental skills. The tasks included remembering lists of words or what they saw in a picture.

Seniors were supposed to ride the bicycle in 45-minute shifts for three months. There were about 100 people in the study at eight different locations throughout the Capital Region.

The cyclists logged in and provided a password, which brought up their exercise history. They then touched the screen to select the difficultly level and the type of course, which can contain scenic vistas and rolling hills. The seniors started the project with just their vital sign readings showing on the monitor and then moved up to the different courses.

“I really try to do a new one each day,” said 89-year-old Althea Nelson.

Jeannette Gerlaugh, 84, said she likes the challenge of the exercise. Once she has done one of the courses, the computer creates a “ghost” character that will appear the next time she does the course to see if she can match that time. “It’s fun to see what you can accomplish,” she said.

Anderson-Hanley’s project partner was Paul Arciero, associate professor for exercise science at Skidmore College.

She said now the next step is to compile the data and publish the results of the study in the coming months. Fifteen students have helped at various times with inputting the research.

brain boost

The research has found, at least preliminarily, that there appear to be some cognitive benefits to this type of exercise.

Anderson-Hanley said that having the video screen with the simulated course might be more engaging and may help motivate people.

“Maybe people would bike harder and more often,” she said.

Nelson agreed.

“I just enjoy the challenge of pedaling once again and having pictures in front of me,” Nelson said.

Gerlaugh said the exercise seemed to help somewhat with the word recognition memory exercise. “Each time, I could remember a few more,” she said.

Anderson-Hanley recalled the case of one woman who told her that she had given up going to the beach because she was too unsteady to walk in the sand.

“She went back to the beach because her legs have gotten so strong,” Anderson-Hanley said.

Nelson used to ride when she was younger. “When this invitation came along, I considered it a challenge. I said I’m going to do it,” she said.

“As you get older, you have to exercise your mind and body.”

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