Several months ago I wrote an article about how exergames could help provide children achieve some physical activity. Now while still advocate going outside and engaging in traditional exercise, I admit that exergaming, like the Wii and Kinect, might have a role in improving kids’ health.

Well, now there might be evidence that these video games systems might benefit older adults too. And the benefits might not be limited to physical ones.

Exergaming as a family can help adults

A new study published in the February 2012 issue of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that exergames might improve cognitive function in older Americans and slow or prevent the onset of dementia. Cay Anderson-Hanley, PhD, et al. compared the use of traditional stationary bicycles to those incorporating virtual reality tours (“cybercycles”) among older adults from retirement communities. In addition to evaluating exercise effort and fitness, the authors studied executive function, cognitive impairment, and plasma brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF).

The researchers found significant differences between the groups. The adults who used the virtual reality-enhanced cybercycles for three months demonstrated greater cognitive benefit and less cognitive decline than those who expended similar effort on the traditional stationary bicycles. The authors felt that navigating three-dimensional landscape, competing against other competitors, focusing and making decisions helped to stimulate cognitive function more than standard exercise.

The authors conclude, “The implication is that older adults who choose exergaming with interactive physical and cognitive exercise, over traditional exercise, may garner added cognitive benefıt and perhaps prevent decline, all for the same exercise effort.”

I think this study is encouraging for a number of reasons. First, these exergames can be performed just about anywhere. Assisted living facilities and nursing homes can encourage their patients to use these games indoors with supervision, where there is less chance for injury. Since little equipment is needed, these systems could be relatively inexpensive when used for many participants. Plus they could provide a source of entertainment and promote camaraderie.

Another potential benefit, although the authors did not focus on this idea, comes in the application to other segments of the population, especially children. It seems plausible to integrate learning with these virtual reality experiences into exercise and achieve both physical and intellectual stimulation. It seems to be similar to the effect derived from the action-based learning programs that are being studied in some schools. In fact, incorporating physical fitness and learningcould probably help people of all ages and backgrounds.

Now I still believe in cross training and variety and would never advocate exergames as a lone source of fitness activity for most people. I think that alternating between several different types of exercise can help to avoid overuse injury, and the variety can decrease the chance for burnout.

Having said that, I think that the potential benefits for exergaming to both older adults and everyone else could be significant both physically and mentally.

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