We know that physical exercise greatly helps you prevent cognitive decline with aging. We know that mental stimulation also helps you prevent age-related cognitive decline. So it was only a matter of time before someone came up with a way of combining the two. A new study found that older adults improved executive function more by participating in virtual reality-enhanced exercise ("exergames") that combine physical exercise with computer-simulated environments and interactive videogame features, compared to the same exercise without the enhancements.
The Cybercycle Study involved 79 older adults (aged 58-99) from independent living facilities with indoor access to a stationary exercise bike. Of the 79, 63 participants completed the three-month study, meaning that they achieved at least 25 rides during the three months.
Unfortunately, randomization was not as good as it should have been — although the researchers planned to randomize on an individual basis, various technical problems led them to randomize on a site basis (there were eight sites), with the result that the cybercycle group and the control bike group were significantly different in age and education. Although the researchers took this into account in the analysis, that is not the same as having groups that match in these all-important variables. However, at least the variables went in opposite directions: while the cybercycle group was significantly younger (average 75.7 vs 81.6 years), it was significantly less educated (average 12.6 vs 14.8 years).
Perhaps also partly off-setting the age advantage, the cybercycle group was in poorer shape than the control group (higher BMI, glucose levels, lower physical activity level, etc), although these differences weren’t statistically significant. IQ was also lower for the cybercycle group, if not significantly so (but note the high averages for both groups: 117.6 vs 120.6). One of the three tests of executive function, Color Trails, also showed a marked group difference, but the large variability in scores meant that this difference was not statistically significant.
Although participants were screened for disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and functional disability, many of both groups were assessed as having MCI — 16 of the 38 in the cybercycle group and 14 of the 41 in the control bike group.
Participants were given cognitive tests at enrolment, one month later (before the intervention began), and after the intervention ended. The stationary bikes were identical for both groups, except the experimental bike was equipped with a virtual reality display. Cybercycle participants experienced 3D tours and raced against a "ghost rider," an avatar based on their last best ride.
The hypothesis was that cybercycling would particularly benefit executive function, and this was borne out. Executive function (measured by the Color Trails, Stroop test, and Digits Backward) improved significantly more in the cybercycle condition, and indeed was the only cognitive task to do so (other cognitive tests included verbal fluency, verbal memory, visuospatial skill, motor function). Indeed, the control group, despite getting the same amount of exercise, got worse at the Digits Backward test, and failed to show any improvement on the Stroop test.
Moreover, significantly fewer cybercyclists progressed to MCI compared to the control group (three vs nine).
There were no differences in exercise quantity or quality between the two groups — which does argue against the idea that cyber-enhanced physical activity would be more motivating. However, the cybercycling group did tend to comment on their enjoyment of the exercise. While the enjoyment may not have translated into increased activity in this situation, it may well do so in a longer, less directed intervention — i.e. real life.
It should also be remembered that the intervention was relatively short, and that other cognitive tasks might take longer to show improvement than the more sensitive executive function. This is supported by the fact that levels of the brain growth factor BDNF, assessed in 30 participants, showed a significantly greater increase of BDNF in cybercyclists.
I should also emphasize that the level of physical exercise really wasn't that great, but nevertheless the size of the cybercycle's effect on executive function was greater than usually produced by aerobic exercise (a medium effect rather than a small one).
The idea that activities that combine physical and mental exercise are of greater cognitive benefit than the sum of benefits from each type of exercise on its own is not inconsistent with previous research, and in keeping with evidence from animal studies that physical exercise and mental stimulation help the brain via different mechanisms. Moreover, I have an idea that enjoyment (in itself, not as a proxy for motivation) may be a factor in the cognitive benefits derived from activities, whether physical or mental. Mere speculation, derived from two quite separate areas of research: the idea of “flow” / “being in the zone”, and the idea that humor has physiological benefits.
Of course, as discussed, this study has a number of methodological issues that limit its findings, but hopefully it will be the beginning of an interesting line of research.
(2012). Exergaming and Older Adult Cognition.
American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 42(2), 109 - 119.