Just as the exercise video game Wii Fit began to grow in popularity, a team of Capital Region researchers began laying the groundwork for a study that would result in significant news for seniors.
The results of that study will make their debut today, revealing in detail how the combination of exercise and interactive video games can provide the elderly with greater cognitive health benefits than traditional exercise alone.
The news, which will appear in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, could make exercise more appealing than ever to those who hope to stave off cognitive decline, such as dementia, in the aging process.
“We need more research to tease it apart,” said lead researcher Cay Anderson-Hanley, a psychology professor at Union College. “But my hunch is there is something special about interactive mental and physical exercise. It’s not just doubling the time or the effort, but the way the mind and body work together in tandem might benefit the brain more than doing either would separately.”
In fact, Anderson-Hanley and Skidmore College exercise science professor Paul Arciero discovered a connection between the mind and body that addresses a gap in the literature. No other test has compared the cognitive benefits for older adults of virtual reality-enhanced exercise with traditional exercise.
The randomized clinical trial studied the affects of cybercycling versus traditional exercise and their affects on the cognitive function of older adults. Data were collected over two years, but Capital Region seniors weren’t asked to sweat until 2010, when the three-month study began.
Of 102 participants in the Capital Region who enrolled, 63 adults between the ages of 58 and 99 completed the trial.
Stationary exercise bikes were used by both the traditional and video gaming groups, but the latter were hooked up to a video screen that pulled them into computer-simulated landscapes. And the thrill of chasing dragons, grabbing coins, navigating turns and competing with other avatars during an exercise shift yielded a surprising find.
The cybercyclists had significantly better executive function than the traditional exercisers. In addition, they experienced a 23 percent reduction in progression to mild cognitive impairment.
“No difference in exercise frequency, intensity or duration was found between the two groups, indicating that factors other than effort and fitness were responsible for the cognitive benefit,” said Arciero, a professor of health and exercise sciences at Skidmore College.
The exercise was no mountain climb, either. The seniors averaged three 45-minute rides a week, and burned only about 100 calories a ride.
But it wasn’t the physical effort alone that led to the cognitive benefits, which were assessed on functions such as planning, working memory, attention and problem solving.
“As someone is biking, they do mental challenges that are not at all connected to their physical activity,” said Anderson-Hanley. “As they bike down these virtual pathways, they see scenery and competitors and decide to turn a corner or not. The brain is really a muscle in itself, and that’s the finer point.”
In “Exergaming and Older Adult Cognition,” Anderson-Hanley writes that participants would comment on their enjoyment of the visual stimulation and beating competitors.
One woman said she felt healthier — a result of actively trying to “compete with that fellow ahead of me.”
Ultimately, cybercycling, or Wii Fit, or PlayStation Move, are not only appealing, but now scientifically proven to yield greater cognitive benefits.
They’re different from listening to an iPod or passively taking in television news while at the gym because they’re interactive, Anderson-Hanley said.
“It’s quite fun and entertaining,” she said. “And it seems like something we probably naturally would do if we could be out in the natural world riding a bike on a spring day. We would observe the world and pass interesting scenery and animals and take it all in. Of course, with our older adults between 70 and 80, most aren’t in the position to get on a traditional outdoor bike.”
The Schenectady professor said it was her great passion for older adults that led her to dedicate much of her career to understanding cognitive impairments like dementia or Alzheimer’s.
When she and Arciero won the Health Games Research grant from the pioneer Portfolio of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she had no idea the local community would be so instrumental in making the study a success. More than 20 students from Union and Skidmore helped throughout the four years it took to conduct the study and analyze the findings.
“A few are even co-authors on the study, a few recruited the older adults and trained them to use the bike. It’s been a very productive project in so many ways and we had great contact with the community — from Saratoga to Colonie to Schenectady. We couldn’t have done it without this kind of partnership, and that’s one of the benefits of having this kind of close-knit community here.”