Exercise + Video Games = Smarter?

Researchers at Union College recently showed that it’s possible for older people to experience cognitive benefits from doing exercise while also participating in virtual reality games. Specifically, they studied older people riding exercise bikes while playing a game that had them chase dragons and collect coins by pedaling faster and using controls. The people in the study had already started to experience some age-related cognitive decline, but by the end of six months participating in the study, their mental sharpness was better than it was before they started!
So what if you don’t have a virtual-reality video game attached to your exercise bike? The good news for you from this study is that another group of participants saw the exact same benefits from riding an exercise bike that just played a plain-old simulation of riding down the road. So you can imagine the benefits you would get from actually riding your bike outside.
This study was done as a follow-up to another study that showed that people who rode an exercise bike with the riding-down-the-road simulation showed cognitive gains over people who just rode an exercise bike with nothing to do or look at. The point of the new study was to find out if there could be further mental upsides to making the simulation into a video game environment with points to gain and so forth versus a straightforward biking simulation. The answer is no, there is no extra cognitive gain, although some people did say that the exercise itself felt easier to them when they were occupied by the game.
What does this tell us? That exercise has the most benefits when you do it in context. If you walk or jog, avoid doing it on a treadmill; do it outside or at the mall where you have to look and think about where you’re going.
The same goes for resistance training–machines force you to move in a certain way without you having to think about it, but it’s better to use kettlebells or resistance bands that force you to think about how you’re moving. Another exercise that we know is great for your brain is anything where your limbs cross the centerline of your body, like when using an agility ladder or doing toe-touches from one hand to the opposite foot.
So, if you can’t get your hands on a virtual reality machine, try exercising outside, in actual reality.

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