Life Wellbeing How playing video games can help combat memory loss and boost fitness
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How playing video games can help combat memory loss and boost fitness

Interactive video sports games improve physical and mental fitness better than a gym workout. Photo: Getty
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We’re forever banging on about exercise working to preserve the ageing brain from going downhill at a fast rate. Go for a walk, do some stretching, lift some weights.

It’s a message for people of all ages, but particularly for older folk concerned about losing their thinking and memory abilities.

A common obstacle, though, is that repetitive exercise is boring for many people. And it doesn’t demand a great deal of thinking power.

So how about combining the physical with the mental and throw in some fun?

This was the thinking behind a new study in which retirement-home residents played interactive video sports – boxing, 10-pin bowling, soccer, track and field, table tennis, beach volleyball – for 12 weeks.

Did it make a difference?

Step one: No kids allowed

The study was conceived by Associate Tracy Kolbe-Alexander, from the University of Southern Queensland’s School of Health and Wellbeing.

“The question we wanted to answer was: if we include a cognitive load with a physical activity, is it more beneficial than just doing physical activity on its own?” Dr Kolbe-Alexander told The New Daily.

The study – run by a PhD student Udhir Ramnath from the University of Cape Town – measured the cognitive performance, physical function and fitness of 45 adults, average age 72 years, through a series of tests before and after the 12-week trial.

All participants reported memory complaints – of a sort you tend to hear from old people. They weren’t demented nor were they clinically diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment.

Twenty-three participants attended two one-hour interactive video game sessions per week, while the other 22 took part in low intensity standing and seated exercises, including strength and balance exercises .

The games, played on an X-Box 360 gaming console, worked different parts of the body. Soccer, for example, put demands on lower body strength and agility. Boxing was good for arm flexibility, endurance and balance.

At the same time, participants’ thinking and memory skills were challenged by the demands of the games.

 The result?

The researchers found the participants who played the video games “recorded significant increases in the cognitive tests from baseline to three months compared to the other group, demonstrating improved cognitive performance”.

At the same time, “they improved their physical performance, with significant increases in all four physical function tests”.

These were a six-minute walk, dynamic balance, timed up and go (getting out of a chair, walking off and returning to the chair) and functional reach, which is a measure of upper-body flexibility.

In the 6-minute walk test, “both groups improved significantly” – but the gaming group did better than the control group in all physical tests.

The cognitive performance of the participants was measured on two different scales – the Stroop task and the Mini-Mental State Examination.

The scores on these tests “improved significantly” in the gaming group, “while there were no changes in the comparison group”.

To what extent did the fun factor play a part in these results?

“We didn’t measure that,” said Dr Kolbe-Alexander. “But we conducted a previous study with the XBox and the participants absolutely loved it.”

Now you know what to get granny for Christmas.