Physical exercise is good for the brain, with studies showing that it benefits people with normal age-related cognitive losses, those with mild cognitive impairment and possibly even people with dementia.
A recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has now found that virtual-reality exercise, sometimes called exergaming, enhances brain power in older people even better than traditional exercise.
If you’re not already familiar with exergames, your kids and/or grandkids most likely are. Some examples are Nintendo Wii Fit and PlayStation Move, in which you mimic the movements needed to perform a sport or activity while a screen shows your actions in real time.
More than just a bike ride
The study included 79 healthy older people. Half rode a traditional recumbent stationary bicycle three times a week, on average, for 45 minutes each session. The other half rode “cybercycles”—the same bikes fitted with virtual reality displays. The cybercycles required participants to navigate a 3D landscape (in Paris or outer space, for example), anticipate turns and compete against an on-screen racer.
After three months, despite similar exertion levels in both groups, the cybercyclers scored better than regular riders on tests of executive function involving planning, attention, working memory and problem-solving. They were also less likely to experience a worsening of cognitive impairment.
Why cybercycling provided more cognitive benefits than did physical exercise alone is not clear. As the researchers explained, it could be due to the mental exercise involved in navigating along the virtual bike path and making decisions about passing a competitor, or even just observing and enjoying the scenery, which serves as an enriched environment. In addition, there may be something special about the interactive, potentially synergistic, relationship between mental and physical exercise—that is, doing two things at once that are in sync with each other may facilitate improved brain health more efficiently.
Get your exergame on
Of course, doing the real thing—biking outdoors—also provides an enriched environment for enhancing cognitive functions. But it comes with weather issues and may not be a good option for older people who have balance problems or health conditions that limit their mobility. Some people may also find exergaming more motivating than traditional exercise, particularly if they are tech-oriented and like competition.
In 2011 Wii introduced a stationary cyberbike (bike and game combo, $200), which works with the Wii console ($150). You can also buy virtual reality fitness software and a sensor kit from NetAthlon ($150) that allows you to sync your computer to a stationary bike. Other interactive computer sports games vary in price.
Keep in mind that like all exercise, virtual exercise can cause real injuries if done incorrectly or overdone. If you have physical or medical limitations, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist before beginning any exercise regimen.