January 16th, 2012
02:45 PM ET
Physical exercise is critical to keeping our brains healthy, preventing or slowing the progression of cognitive decline that can lead to dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately the CDC estimates that only 14% of adults aged 65 to 74, and 4% of adults over 75, exercise regularly.
These were the facts Dr. Cay Anderson-Hanley had when she began a study on exergaming and older adults. The assistant professor at Union College in New York hoped to determine if exergames - virtual reality games that combine exercise with interactive features - would motivate senior citizens to work out more.
What her study found was that exergames have the potential to improve cognitive function more than traditional exercise alone. The results were published in the current issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Study participants were split into two groups, a control group that rode a traditional stationary bicycle and an experimental group that went "cybercycling" with a virtual reality program. Both groups biked for 45 minutes, five days a week for three months.
Cybercyclers engaged in interactive elements like navigating virtual pathways or competing with other riders. These elements provided extra stimulation that watching TV or reading while exercising can't, Anderson-Hanley said. The benefit was significant; the cybercycling group experienced a 23% reduction in mild cognitive impairment, compared to the mental benefits experienced by the traditional exercise group.
More research must be done to determine exactly what it is about exergames that creates a bigger reduction in cognitive impairment, Anderson-Hanley said. Her hunch is that there's something special about the combination of physical exercise and mental interaction– a synergy of sorts is created.
"The neat thing about exergames is that what happens on the screen is driven by what's going on on the bike." For instance, if you want to catch the rider in front of you, you have to pedal faster. "The challenges are uniquely tied."
More research must also be done to see if the study's results could be replicated in a larger population and if the cognitive benefits would apply to younger participants. But for now, Anderson-Hanley is optimistic about the possibilities.
"We find that these results give us a hope that there is more that can be done to intervene and benefit cognitive health in later life. Finding something like this, we’re not going to cure Alzheimer’s, but it’s another tool in the tool belt that may help slow down cognitive decline and that’s very exciting."
The word "exergames" is also used to describe video game systems like the PlayStation Move or the Wii Fit. Researchers have found that the physical benefits from these games are most beneficial to seniors. To learn more, click here.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.