A Western Kentucky University program that combines bingo and exercise for elderly people has been shown to have research-tested improvements to physical health, cognitive skills and social engagement.

“This is a really good opportunity to work with an older population,” said Jason Crandall, the WKU professor who invented the program.

Crandall, an associate exercise science professor at WKU, first came up with the program by accident while he was a faculty member at Kentucky Wesleyan College.

One day, when Crandall and his students visited an Owensboro assisted living facility to launch an exercise program, their plans were thwarted by the facility’s regularly scheduled bingo game.

That’s when it hit Crandall: Why not combine the two?

After checking the research on such a program and turning up nothing, Crandall set to work developing the program, which integrates a series of low to moderate exercises into a regular bingo game. The result was Bingocize, which is now expanding after it got its start in 2011. The program typically involves an exercise instructor guiding participants through exercises as they play bingo.

After receiving recent grant money, Crandall said WKU is partnering with universities across Kentucky and nearby nursing homes to start their own programs. The program also has a mobile version that’s facilitated through tablets that display bingo cards and health information.

The benefits go both ways, Crandall said, for both the participants who reduce their fall risk and physical function and the university students who get experience working with older populations.

But the program has also been shown to have cognitive benefits, according to Matthew Shake, an associate professor of psychological sciences at WKU.

Shake said a two-year study funded by the Retirement Research Foundation is close to concluding.

The study looked at improvements in participants’ executive brain function, which he described as the ability to update information in the mind and block irrelevant information. People often use this brain function when running through a rehearsed grocery list in their head, Shake said. In other words, Shake said, it acts as a memory measure.

After 10 weeks of comparing a group of people who did Bingocize and those who simply played bingo and learned about health topics without exercising, Shake said researchers found an interesting discovery. Participants’ ability to update the working contents of their memory changed.

“What we found is improvements in the exercise group,” he said.

Although the sample size is relatively small and it’s a leap to conclude that the program can fight Alzheimer’s disease, Shake said the results are encouraging. It adds to research that shows exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is one of the best things people can do to preserve their cognitive function as they age. That’s a benefit that crossword puzzles and other brain busters don’t have, Shake said.

Going forward, Shake said researchers are working on testing the program through a clinical trial.

“It’s an exciting start to the research, and I think we still have a long way to go,” he said.

For Shake, the research is an encouraging sign of the potential for creative solutions to improving wellness in elderly people.

“If we can get them to change behaviors … then there’s going to be positive health outcomes,” he said.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.

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Education reporter. Covers education and related issues, focusing primarily on the Bowling Green and Warren County public school districts and Western Kentucky University.

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