“While exercise does not appear to be a cure-all, it is one of the strongest tools that we individually can enlist in our fight against cognitive decline and diseases of many types.”
Playing video games that double as exercise can reap mental benefits above and beyond traditional exercise. In a recent study, seniors riding a stationary bike coupled with a vivid virtual environment cognitively outperformed those solely a stationary bike.
As evidence mounts that exercise helps slow cognitive decline, Cay Anderson-Hanley of Union College and colleagues wanted to test the effects of so-called “exergaming” on aging adults. The researchers set up adults 55 and older on stationary bikes while watching a high-quality virtual reality scene unfold on the screen in front of them. As the participants propelled themselves forward through a given environment, they saw a variety of scenes – along the ocean, through a forest, or down a village street. Those in the control condition rode the exact same stationary bike but without experiencing the virtual environment.
Researchers found that 3 months after exercising an average 3 times a day, the exergamers performed better on a variety of executive function and other cognitive tests that those in the control, relative to before the exercise regiment began. They calculated that cybercyclists had a 23 percent reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment than those in the control group.
CNS discussed this study, published last year in American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and recent developments with lead author Cay Anderson-Hanley.
Anderson-Hanley: I have been passionate about living life to the fullest across the lifespan. My personal and professional experiences have led me to care deeply about helping all of us maintain cognitive function in later life, and to decrease the impact of dementia, such as caused by Alzheimer’s. Given the vast literature on the many physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits of exercise, I began collaborating with a colleague on research to investigate the impact of exercise on cognition in later life, combining my own specialization in geriatric neuropsychology and his in exercise science.
We found significant effects from simple strengthening exercises but knew only a small percentage of seniors would take up such a program. The increasing availability of exergames gave us hope that perhaps more seniors would embark on an exercise program if the equipment was more motivating, and fun to ride. We saw a prototype of a stationary bike that was interactive with a virtual reality tour on a computer screen and thought it could motivate more seniors to take up exercise, which could lead to cognitive benefits. We called this type of set up a “cybercycle” and set out to see if seniors would derive greater cognitive benefit from riding it, than a traditional, more “boring” stationary bike.
CNS: Can you describe briefly in lay, nontechnical terms what we know about how exercise affects cognitive ability in older adults?
Anderson-Hanley: Over the past couple of decades, there has been amassed an increasingly high- quality research literature, conducted by some of the finest scientists in the world, that clearly demonstrates a significant impact of aerobic and strengthening exercise on thinking processes for older adults. In particular, the aspect of thinking most consistently impacted by exercise across many studies is referred to as our “executive functions,” which encompasses something akin to the work of the CEO of one’s brain. This can include things like: coordinating multiple tasks, controlling responses, and planning ahead.
CNS: Were you surprised by any of the results? If so, which ones?
Anderson-Hanley: We were surprised that while our hypothesis was supported – senior cybercyclists did show significantly greater executive function benefits than their counterparts on a traditional stationary bike – it wasn’t for the reason we expected. We had hypothesized, that the cybercycle would motivate extra riding – harder, faster, longer – thus increasing one’s dose of exercise, which in turn would increase cognitive benefits. However, we had a super sample of seniors and those in the control condition did not slack off as we expected, but rather just like the cybercyclists sustained the goal of 3 to 5 times per week, with miles, minutes, and effort similar too.
Anderson-Hanley: The cybercyclists appeared to accrue additional cognitive benefit above and beyond ordinary exercise. We would like to see this exciting finding replicated in another sample of older adults and are working toward that at present. The cause of this added cognitive benefit is still unknown, but we hypothesize that the interactive mental and physical exercise of tracking one’s self in a virtual space while also pedaling provided an enriched environment for growth. We are still investigating this and are just now wrapping up a few follow-up studies that aimed to examine the salient factors of the cybercycling experience. We expect to present results at an upcoming conference and publish those results in the near future.
CNS: Are there are novel elements of the study design that you would like to highlight?
Anderson-Hanley: No one had previously examined interactive mental and physical exercise for older adults in a well-controlled design. We employed novel and state-of-the-art exergames and ensured participants could reach appropriate heart-rate elevations, in contrast with some exergame research which has been criticized for not inducing appropriate levels of physical activity as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.
CNS: What is the significance of the work for the average person? Is it applicable yet for preventing dementia?
Anderson-Hanley: We should all continue to strive for regular exercise, which has been linked to improved cognitive function, slowing of decline, and has been found to be a potent factor in the prevention of dementia. While exercise does not appear to be a cure-all, it is one of the strongest tools that we individually can enlist in our fight against cognitive decline and diseases of many types.
CNS: What is next for this work?
Anderson-Hanley: We have just received a grant from NIH/NIA to examine the impact of interactive mental and physical exercise for older adults who meet criteria for mild cognitive impairment.
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