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The case for virtual reality on grandma's stationary bike

The two-year Cybercycle Study finds that older adults exhibit greater cognitive benefits from virtually reality-enhanced exercise than traditional forms.

My 85-year-old grandmother wouldn't do well on a bike on the open road. Her vision, hearing, and cognition have all declined enough to make such an expedition something of a death sentence. But those indoor stationary bikes are just so...boring.

A woman tries out cybercycling at the Glen Eddy retirement community in Niskayuna, N.Y. American Journal of Preventive Medicine

Which is why researchers launched the Cybercycle Study in 2008 in an effort to explore what kinds of benefits older adults might reap from riding stationary bikes with interactive video game features.

What they found is that the cybercyclists demonstrated greater cognitive benefits than those who rode traditional stationary bikes without the virtual enhancement, according to their article in the February 2012 issue of the 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," lead investigator Cay Anderson-Hanley, of the Healthy Aging and Neuropsychology Lab and Department of Psychology at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., said in a news release.

Researchers enrolled 102 volunteers ages 58 to 99 from independent-living facilities that provided indoor stationary bikes. Half were assigned to ride bikes with virtual enhancements, and half without. Of the original cohort, 79 completed initial evaluations and training and 63 completed the study, averaging three rides per week.

At enrollment, one month into the study, and three months in, the researchers assessed various executive functions, including attention, problem solving, planning, and working memory. They also tested blood plasma to look for changes in brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF), thought to link exercise to cognition.

The cybercyclists--who rode through scenery in France, California, and even outer space in an attempt to outpace virtual racers--demonstrated both a greater increase in BDNF as well as a 23 percent reduction in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) when compared with those who rode bikes without the game. These results held regardless of any differences in exercise frequency or intensity, which suggests that the cognitive benefits come from something other than physical effort.

"Navigating a 3D landscape, anticipating turns, and competing with others require additional focus, expanded divided attention, and enhanced decision making," says Anderson-Hanley. "The implication of our study is that older adults who choose exergaming with interactive physical and cognitive exercise over traditional exercise may garner added cognitive benefit, and perhaps prevent decline, all for the same exercise effort."

The study was funded by a Health Games Research grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to investigate the effects of interactive gaming on the health behaviors and outcomes for adults ages 50 and older.