As a little girl, Althea Nelson loved to ride her bicycle around the neighborhood. So when the opportunity to volunteer for a national study examining the physiological and neuropsychological impact of cybercycling on seniors, Nelson climbed on board.
“I enjoy the challenge of pedaling again,” said the 89-year-old Nelson recently while riding a stationary bike featuring a colorful 3-D monitor in the exercise room at the Glen Eddy, a retirement community in Niskayuna, N.Y. “It’s also great exercise.”
Nelson, who logged 381 miles over the past year on the bike, was among more than 100 seniors who participated in a study led by Cay Anderson-Hanley, assistant professor of psychology at Union. She is collaborating with Paul Arciero, an associate professor of exercise science at Skidmore College.
The two-year study, which wrapped up this week, was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to explore how interactive digital gaming can improve the health behaviors and outcomes for people age 50 and older.
The College was among 11 other research teams that received up to $200,000 each from the foundation’s Health Games Research program to measure the effects of video games on the health of the young and old.
Hanley’s team of researchers, which included students from Union and Skidmore, monitored the cognitive function, heart rate, body composition, social relationships and other measures of the riders while they raced against a virtual cycling partner three to five times a week.
The specially designed bikes were placed at eight sites around the region, including the Glen Eddy.
The idea was to make exercise more fun and competitive for a group not prone to participate by capitalizing on the popularity of video games.
Hanley hopes to publish the findings of the study this fall.
“Preliminary analyses indicate some cognitive benefits,” to cybercycling, said Hanley.
The chance to compete against others also motivated participants. Jeannette Gerlaugh would wait until the end of the day to ride the bike, so she could see what her neighbors at the Glen Eddy had done.
“I’m a competitive person, I guess,” said the 84-year-old Gerlaugh, who racked up 473 miles, nearly 100 more than Nelson. Then she noticed Nelson beat her at another number.
“You burned more calories than I did,” said Gerlaugh, laughing. “How did you do that?”
The undisputed king of the Glen Eddy, though, was Harry Steven. At 88, Steven still rides the region’s bike trails. On the cybercycle, he collected more than 725 miles, mainly while playing “Dragon Chase,” one of at least a dozen gaming options.
“It’s fun to see what you can accomplish,” said Steven, sporting a racing shirt emblazoned with “Cycling the Erie Canal.”
That spirit is what Hanley thinks could push more seniors to exercise through digital gaming, providing critical health benefits.
“Games like this make them want to bike harder and more often,” Hanley said. “It’s truly impressive.”