Over the last decade the gaming industry has been highly criticized for promoting a more sedentary lifestyle. In fact, it is well documented that by adhering to a lifestyle dictated by this technological revolution, we become more physically inactive and subsequently less fit. This leads to an increased incidence in the number of chronic diseases across the human lifespan. In an attempt to fight back against its critics, the gaming industry began designing and promoting new gaming consoles which incorporated physical activity exercises into the gaming experience. This new idea of blending video games and physical activity quickly became an established entity in the gaming world, but it lacked a name; thus, the term “exergames” was born. Nowadays, we can play exergames that incorporate a range of activities, from dancing and aerobics to sports like tennis, golf and cycling. Exergames facilitate feelings of enjoyment and motivation for playing games that include body movements. Although technological products and novelties are usually more geared towards the younger generation, recent research suggests that playing exergames may be beneficial for older people as well.
The latest research (2012) published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that cybercycling exergames, as opposed to traditional cycling exercise, might prevent cognitive decline in older adults. Namely, study results showed that combining gaming activities (cognitive) and physical exercise has the potential to positively affect the cognitive skills of older adults.
As for the background of the study, the participants (63 volunteers, aged over 58 years) were divided into two groups. The first group performed cycling exercise using the traditional stationary bike (group 1) and the second group performed exercise using the cybercycle stationary bike (group 2). Cybercycle is a new stationary bike with a 3D monitor, which gives you the sensation of actually steering a bicycle (see photo). Thus, the participants in group 2 experienced 3D tours and races against “ghost riders” on avatar based rides. Researchers proposed that having to navigate a 3D landscape changes the anticipation during exercise and that competition with other players, or with a “ghost rider”, enhances focus, attention and decision-making ability.
Overall, the study enrolled 63 volunteers, aged over 58 years, and all participants performed three traditional or cybercycle rides per week over a period of 3 months.
To assess the impact of a three month intervention period, researchers evaluated participants’ executive functions, such as planning, working memory, attention, and problem solving, at three different times: at enrollment phase, 1 month later but before intervention (pre-intervention), and 3 months after the intervention (post-intervention). Blood plasma was tested to measure whether a change in brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF) indicated possible neuroplasticity, which is a mechanism of change that could link exercise to cognition. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) was an additional variable, which was also tested.
The main findings showed that the cybercycle exercisers had better executive functions than those who rode a traditional stationary bike. More specifically, cybercyclists had a 23% relative risk reduction in the clinical progression of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) when compared to traditional riders. Based on the results researchers also found a greater increase of BDNF in cybercyclists compared to traditional exercisers, suggesting that interactive/combined mental and physical exercise may lead to cognitive benefits. The main conclusion of this study was that by using cybercycling exergaming, older adults maintain better cognitive functioning than traditional bikers, all the while exercising at the same intensity; suggesting that simultaneous cognitive and physical exercise has a greater potential for preventing cognitive decline than physical exercise alone.
Based on the research findings, it is possible to argue that the exercise selected by older adults has a direct impact not only on their physical state but also on their cognitive functioning. Even if there is no cybercycle on which to perform the physical activity, it may be preferable to try to do exercises that include attentional, memory and decision making elements.
Finally, seeing exercise as both physically and mentally beneficial, should we not promote cognitively stimulating exercise instead of monotonous physical workouts?