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Are cyberbuddies good for your health?

A Michigan State University researcher is looking to give exercise enthusiasts the extra nudge they need during a workout, and her latest research shows that a cyber buddy can help. The study, which appears in the Games for Health Journal, is the first to indicate that although a human partner is still a better motivator during exercise, a software-generated partner also can be effective.

Are cyberbuddies good for your health?
Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images

“We wanted to demonstrate that something that isn’t real can still motivate people to give greater effort while exercising than if they had to do it by themselves,” says Deborah Feltz, according to the April 23, 2014 news release, "Cyber buddy is better than 'no buddy'." Feltz is a University Distinguished Professor in MSU’s kinesiology department who led the study with co-investigator Brian Winn, associate professor in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. There's also another noteworthy study, "Games for Wellness - Impacting the Lives of Employees and the Profits of Employers."

The implications from the research also could open the door for software and video game companies to create cyber buddy programs based on sport psychology

“Unlike many of the current game designs out there, these results could allow developers to create exercise platforms that incorporate team or partner dynamics that are based on science,” says Feltz, according to the April 23, 2014 news release, "Cyber buddy is better than 'no buddy'."

Using “CyBud-X,” an exercise game specifically developed for Feltz’s research, 120 college-aged participants were given five different isometric plank exercises to do with one of three same-sex partner choices. Along with a human partner option, two software-generated buddies were used – one representing what looked to be a nearly human partner and another that looked animated. The participant and partner image were then projected onto a screen via a web camera while exercising.

The results showed that a significant motivational gain was observed in all partner conditions

“Even though participants paired with a human partner held their planks, on average, one minute and 20 seconds longer than those with no partner, those paired with one of the software-generated buddies still held out, on average, 33 seconds longer,” says Feltz, according to the news release.

Much of Feltz’s research in this area has focused on the Köhler Motivation Effect, a phenomenon that explains why people, who may not be adept exercisers themselves, perform better with a moderately better partner or team as opposed to working out alone.

Her findings give credence that programs such as “CyBud-X” can make a difference in the way people perform

“We know that people tend to show more effort during exercise when there are other partners involved because their performance hinges on how the entire team does,” she says, according to the news release. “The fact that a nonhuman partner can have a similar effect is encouraging.”

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health funded the study. Other MSU researchers on the project included Karin Pfeiffer, associate professor in kinesiology, and Norbert Kerr, professor of social science psychology. For more information, you may wish to check out the Games for Health Journal.

Video games for healthier aging: Exergames (making exercise fun with social interaction)

Videogame technology is proving to be a valuable tool for helping people of all ages improve lifestyle and health habits and manage disease. New research is showing that exergames have significant benefits for older adults by providing cognitive stimulation and a source of social interaction, exercise, and fun. You may wish to check out the April 23, 2014 study appearing online in the Games for Health Journal, "Can Videogames Promote Healthier Aging? "

So the games help them to lead fuller, more independent lives for a longer time, according to two articles in Games for Health Journal. “The elderly often forsake their lifelong activities in exchange for the safety, security, and care of institutional living,” says Editor-in-Chief Bill Ferguson, PhD. “This trade-off need not require the sacrifice of physical activity and fitness. Furthermore, videogames offer an escape from routine. All of these benefits can improve the well-being of elderly adults.”

Digital games offer a home-based method to support behavior modification, motivating patients to take better care of themselves and to self-mange chronic conditions

Recommendations for how to use and integrate videogame technology in the rehabilitation and training of older adults are presented in the review article “Interactive Videogame Technologies to Support Independence in the Elderly.” Videogames offer a good alternative to traditional forms of aerobic exercise, according to the authors, Hannah Marston, PhD, German Sport University Cologne, Germany, and Stuart Smith, PhD, Neuroscience Research, Randwick, New South Wales, Australia.

You also may wish to view another article in the issue that describes a study performed in three European countries that defined and compared the specific features of videogames that would most interest older adults. Unai Diaz-Orueta, PhD, Matia Gerontological Institute Foundation-INGEMA (Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain), and colleagues from Spain, The Netherlands, and Greece identified several main factors that motivate interest in gaming: the social aspect of the experience; the challenge it presents; the combination of cognitive and physical activity; and the ability to gain specific skills as a result of gaming.

They present their findings in the article, “What is the Key for Older People to Show Interest in Playing Digital Learning Games? Initial Qualitative Findings from the LEAGE Project on a Multicultural European Sample.” And still another noteworthy study is, "Games for Health: Research, Development, and Clinical Applications; A Groundbreaking New Journal on the Applications of Digital Games to Human Health," (07/13/2011).

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