Video games may be primarily the domain of the younger set, but scientists are suggesting that older adults go virtual to help preserve brain function.

Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2012; 42 [2], 109–19), a recent study of 102 participants aged 55 and above, found that exergaming may be more effective than traditional exercise at improving cognitive function.

The participants were separated into two groups: a cybercycle group and a recumbent cycle control. After a 1-month familiarization period, the cybercycle group exercised by following a virtual tour on the digital display and competing with a “ghost rider” (an avatar mimicking the exerciser’s last best ride). They were asked to maintain a heart rate reserve of 60%, with the goal of achieving 45 minutes of exercise, five times per week for 3 months. The recumbent group was given the same protocols as the cybercycle group, except that their monitors displayed only information such as heart rate and mileage. Both groups underwent cognitive testing—for example, verbal fluency, executive function and verbal memory—before, during and after the study.

The study authors reported that the “cybercyclists had a 23% relative risk reduction in clinical progression to mild cognitive impairment.” However, there was little difference in exercise effort and fitness between the groups. “Cybercycling older adults achieved better cognitive function than traditional exercisers, for the same effort, suggesting that simultaneous cognitive and physical exercise has greater potential for preventing cognitive decline.”