Exercise video games that work the mind as well as the body may offer more benefits for older adults than traditional exercise alone, a new study suggests.

Virtual reality-enhanced exercise or "exergames" combine physical activity with computer-simulated environments.

"The implication 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," Cay Anderson-Hanley of the Healthy Aging and Neuropsychology Lab at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and her co-authors concluded.

In the study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers looked at 101 volunteers age 58 to 99 from independent living facilities with access to an exercise bike.

Some participants raced on 3D tours against a "ghost rider," an avatar based on their last best ride. The others also rode identical stationary bikes without the virtual reality display for three months. 

A total of 63 participants completed the study with an average of three rides per week.

Measuring memory loss

Participants also completed tests to evaluate executive functions such as planning, working memory, attention, and problem solving before they were enrolled, before they started riding and one month afterwards.

Cyber-cyclists experienced a 23 per cent reduction in progression to mild cognitive impairment compared with traditional exercisers, the researchers said. The Alzheimer's Association says mild cognitive impairment is marked by symptoms of memory problems, enough to be noticed and measured, but not compromising a person's independence.

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Scenery and competitors on an Expresso cybercycle bike tour complement the physical excercise of a stationary bicycle. (Courtesy of Interactive Fitness Holdings/American Journal of Preventive Medicine)

The people who enjoyed a virtual reality experience had better reasoning skills and less age-related memory loss compared with people who rode standard stationary bikes, said Dr. Gary Falkner, director of research and technology at Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton.

"Our brains can re-learn things and they re-learn them best when we are very, very engaged," said Falkner, who uses similar devices to help people with brain injuries.

Gerontologist Dr. David Hogan at the University of Calgary isn’t sure that fitness games are the answer to age-related memory loss.

"I think it's a fine paper and fine study as far as it goes but it doesn't give us the full answer," Hogan cautioned.

The study's authors acknowledged weaknesses of the study, such as unequal representation of age and education in the groups despite randomization. Participants also had a relatively high level of education and didn’t represent all ethnic groups, so it's not clear how the findings could be generalized.

"We don't necessarily say that seniors should go out and get these games, but they should be stimulating their brain and they should be exercising," said CBC medical specialist Dr. Karl Kabasele.

"What the study suggests is that doing those two things together may give you the most bang for your buck."

Going out to exercise is recommended, but Kabasele advised people to ask a doctor first if they can tolerate exercise to avoid over-exertion and injury.

For Don McCabe, a retired air traffic controller who pilots his stationary bicycle through a virtual reality race course in Edmonton, there's no doubt that the combination of exercise and mental stimulation delivers benefits for him.

"I thought when I got to this age I'd feel a lot older than I do," the 63-year-old said.

The study was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

With files from CBC’s Terry Reith