Virtual Exercise Games Help Elderly Remain Mentally Sharp

Virtual games aren't just for kids any more. Navigating virtual worlds helps grandma and grandpa stay physically and cognitively healthy.

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Exercise is good for both the brain and body, but the irony is that those who could use its one-two punch aren’t physically able to take advantage of its benefits.

The elderly often aren’t physically able to stay physically active, and exercising outdoors for those who are frail can pose more dangers to their health in the form of falls and injuries. But technology may have come to the rescue, as the latest study shows that virtual exergames that simulate outdoor environments can help the elderly to improve their cognitive abilities.

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In a study of 102 elderly adults, researchers found that those who were randomly assigned to ride a cybercycle, in which a stationary bike was equipped with a virtual reality screen that allowed the riders to “bike” through different environments as well as interact with obstacles and other bikers, remained more mentally sharp than those riding a traditional stationary bike. In fact, the cybercylers lowered their risk of declining into mild cognitive impairment, a state in which some of their mental functions decline beyond that of normal aging, but not enough to impair their daily life, by 23% compared to those riding the traditional bikes.

“We’re excited by the finding,” says the study’s lead author, Cay Anderson-Haney, an assistant professor of psychology at Union College. “This doesn’t take away from the fact that exercise in general is helpful, but we just found an added benefit when older adults are doing two things at once.”

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By both riding the bike and concentrating on navigating their virtual world, says Anderson-Haney, the participants benefited from engaging both the bodies and their brains. Each group rode the bikes for an average of 45 minutes, three times a week for three months. “We need more research to uncover what is so special about the virtual world, but I have a hunch that when the seniors are following physical actions on the screen, they are processing all the information mentally, and the brain has more chance to take in information not just from the legs but from the eyes, and that probably enhances brain health in interesting ways that we have yet to uncover.”

The most obvious question is whether seniors exercising in the real world might get the same boost in cognitive health, and that’s something that Anderson-Haney is hoping to study further.

What intrigues her is the fact that the cybercycling group showed slight improvements in three types of executive function tasks that measure planning, multi-tasking and decision making, while the traditional cyclists either showed no change or actually declined in their performance on these tests before and after the sessions. Anderson-Haney says it’s not likely that the people riding the normal stationary bikes were not benefiting from exercise, but that all of the participants may have been showing signs of mental decline, and those riding the virtual reality bikes may have been able to slow this mental slippage. The participants were all asked to perform mental tasks such as connecting dots by color, and repeating a recited string of numbers backwards.

The scientists were also encouraged by the fact that those using the virtual reality bikes also seemed to show signs of greater nerve growth, as measured by levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is linked to nerve development.

The findings suggest that even elderly people who might be physically limited may benefit from some types of exercise that are linked to a virtual world in which they can interact with their environment. Among the study participants, Anderson-Haney says the cybercycles became more popular than the traditional stationary bikes, and that the subjects were motivated by trying to beat ghost riders in their virtual world. “There’s something special about how the mind and body have to work together in a virtual experience,” she says. “We’d like to learn more about what we can do to enhance that cognitive benefit.”