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Skidmore College
Health and Human Physiological Sciences

Motivating Seniors to Exercise Better is Target of Research

Union College involved in $200K effort

Reprinted with permission from the Daily Gazette, June 5, 2008

By Justin Mason

Who said video games are bad for you?

Studies indicate certain interactive games can improve health-related behaviors and outcomes. Now a pair of Capital Region researchers collaborating at Union College are embarking on a privately funded two-year research project to further examine this.

Cay Anderson-Hanley, an assistant professor of psychology at Union, and Paul Arciero, an associate professor of exercise science at Skidmore College, will research the effects of an interactive form of stationary cycling on a group of senior citizen volunteers.

The $200,000 study is among a dozen advanced through the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation's Health Games Research program, which will measure potential gains through video games.

"We've seen the trend with video games and the penetration of video games within homes," explained Chinwe Onyekere, a program officer with the foundation. "We thought maybe we could kind of harness the power of video games to improve health and health care."

The study at Union will monitor 50 volunteers from area senior homes and independent living facilities and then gauge how an enhanced stationary cycling program will affect their willingness to exercise. Participants in the study group will be monitored over a four-month period as they ride a "cybercycle" connected to a 3-D simulator they can watch while exercising.

During the initial phases of the study, Anderson-Hanley said the seniors will be given an avatar, a surrogate, and will have an opportunity to compete against themselves. But as the study progresses, they will be able to compete against other seniors via the Internet and eventually within a team of their peers in a virtual league.

Anderson-Hanley said a control group of seniors will ride the stationary cycle, but will not have a competitive component. All participants will be given a free membership to the cybercyle service, so that researchers can see if they are naturally drawn to using it for exercise.

"Ultimately, we really hope this kind of technology will be useful for seniors who have very limited exercise options and have been very unmotivated to exercise," she said.

Research has suggested good exercise habits can help bolster brain activity and diminish the onset of dementia. Unfortunately, less than 10 percent of the senior population exercises the recommended amount and intensity for their age group.

"We're trying to not only look at the physiological outcomes, but also the cognitive outcomes of this study," she said.

Other institutions to receive grants from the foundation include Cornell University in Ithaca, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina. The grant program is based at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Together, the 12 studies will help us better understand how people respond to various types of health games," said Debra Lieberman, the program's director and a communication researcher at UC Santa Barbara. "This will potentially lead to new game-based applications that can more effectively engage and motivate players to improve their health."

©2008 the Daily Gazette