Video games give seniors a mental boost

Video games are not just for kids anymore.

Exergames, virtual reality-enhanced exercise, may provide a mental benefit for older adults, according to a study published in the current American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"We found that for older adults, virtual reality enhanced interactive exercise, or ‘cybercycling' two to three times per week for three months, yielded greater cognitive benefit, and perhaps added protection against mild cognitive impairment, than a similar dose of traditional exercise," said head researcher and psychologist Cay Anderson-Hanley of Union College in Schenectady, N. Y.

The study enrolled 101 adults, ages 58-99 years, with 63 averaging three rides per week on the cybercycles over a three-month period. During these interactive rides, the participants raced against a ghost rider avatar that was based on their best ride. They could also choose different kinds of virtual scenery.

Participants who rode the cybercycles experienced better planning, memory, attention and problem solving and had a 23 percent reduction in progression to mild cognitive impairment than those who rode a traditional stationary bike, according to the researchers.

"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 Paul Arciero, co-principal investigator and professor of health and exercise sciences at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Anything that can motivate people to exercise is a good thing, said Arthur Kramer, director at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who assisted in this study. He said the next question is whether nursing homes will install these cybercycles.

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Aerobic exercise has a positive effect on cognitive ability in older adults. However, 14 percent of adults over age 65, and 7 percent of adults over 70 regularly engage in exercise, researchers reported.

Jeanine Tanico, a physical therapist at The Grove senior community in Evanston, said she sometimes recommends treadmills and elliptical machines for some physical therapy patients. For patients to see a greater improvement in mental abilities, they need specific cognitive therapy in addition to physical activity, Tanico said.

Many of the participants using the cybercycles enjoyed the competitive aspect of trying to catch up with the ghost rider, and thought the screen was fun to use.

Anderson-Hanley hopes that these findings lead to older adults and facilities investing in cybercycles to promote regular exercise. She said the software for the cycles costs a couple hundred dollars, she said.

"I had one woman say to me, ‘I have to catch that guy up there,'" she said. "It was so exciting to see engaged in this world of exergaming because it appeals to a younger generation."