Study of the Day: Computer-Aided Exercise Is Better for Seniors

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Compared to a regular workout, exercise that is enhanced by virtual reality showed similar fitness gains but greater cognitive benefits.

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PROBLEM: Though numerous studies have shown that exercise may prevent or delay dementia and improve brain functioning as people age, only 14 percent of adults aged 65 to 74 years old and seven percent of those over 75 report regular exercise. Can "exergames" in stationery bikes push older adults to work out more and engender similar cognitive benefits?

METHODOLOGY: Scientists led by Union College's Healthy Aging and Neuropsychology Lab researcher Cay Anderson-Hanley recruited 101 volunteers, 58 to 99 years old, from independent living facilities with indoor access to an exercise bike. They monitored the participants three times a week for three months as they rode these bikes, some of which were equipped with a cybercycle display replete with 3-D tours, racing options, and avatars.

To assess the effect of these exercises on brain health, the authors evaluated the volunteers' executive functions (planning, working memory, attention) immediately before, one month after, and three months after the trial commenced. They also tested the participants' blood plasma periodically for changes in a brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor that indicates neuroplasticity.

RESULTS: Even though there was no difference in exercise frequency, intensity, or duration between the two groups, the cybercycle riders had significantly better executive function than those who used a plain stationary bike. They also experienced a 23 percent reduction in progression to dementia compared to the control group.

CONCLUSION: Older adults who choose exergaming reap additional cognitive rewards while exerting the same physical effort as traditional exercisers.

SOURCE: The full study, "Exergaming and Older Adult Cognition: A Cluster Randomized Clinical Trial," is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Image: American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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