How VR Can Help You Get Fit

Fake worlds, real sweat

Key Takeaways

  • If the coronavirus is keeping you away from the gym and your New Year’s fitness resolutions, you might want to try a workout in virtual reality. 
  • Scientists say that there are real benefits to virtual exercise, and you can even find ratings online that show you how many calories playing a particular game will burn. 
  • One example of the new breed of VR fitness games is Supernatural, which offers a variety of far-out environments in which to sweat to daily workout routines.
A woman wearing a virtual reality headset and boxing gloves.
Watchara Kokram / EyeEm / Getty images

If the coronavirus pandemic has put a dent in your usual New Year’s fitness resolutions, consider giving virtual reality a try to get in shape. 

Virtual reality applications aimed at the fitness crowd range from boxing to all manner of exercises in virtual environments. But while the images may be virtual, the sweat is real, and there’s even some science behind the idea. A recent paper in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that exercisers feel better when they immerse themselves in music and computer-simulated environments.

"It was quite striking how the combination of virtual reality with music boosted exercise-related pleasure, compared with just music or control conditions," one of the paper’s co-authors, Costas Karageorghis, a professor at Brunel University London, said in a news release.

"Our findings show the abundant potential for the use of virtual reality combined with music to get people more physically active in their own homes."

Gaming in the Name of Science

The paper’s authors ran an experiment with 24 volunteers on exercise bikes and found that using VR with music raised perceived enjoyment by 26.4%, compared with a control condition of no VR or music. And the VR combined with music raised enjoyment by 17.5%, compared with music on its own.

A team at the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise at San Francisco State University is working on calculating the kind of workouts VR games can provide to users. "We basically look at how virtual reality gaming can be a form of exercise," Dr. Jimmy Bagley, principal investigator and assistant professor of kinesiology, told NBC.

His team has created online VR Exercise Ratings. Using this calculator, playing Orc Hunter burns about four calories per minute, the same as walking. To really torch the calories, you might want to play Audio Trip, which burns about eight calories a minute, similar to playing tennis. 

A young person at home wearing VR glasses and doing yoga.
Westend61 / Getty Images

"We assume that the consumers of our data are interested in exercising," according to the institute’s website.

"We therefore focus on helping identify high-intensity games. We assume that the user will not deliberately avoid movement when playing, but also not deliberately seek it out beyond what the game requires to be successful. We try to apply a reasonable standard for this and measure what we consider to be typical play required to progress through the goals of the game."

Futuristic Workouts

For those who want a workout in situations far removed from our current grim reality, Supernatural offers a variety of far-out environments in which to sweat to daily workout routines from real trainers. Users can swing at some incoming objects with futuristic bats or squat to dodge others.

"Sweat atop a volcano in Ethiopia," the website proclaims. "Lunge on Iceland's glaciers. Meditate amongst the ruins of Machu Picchu. Without ever leaving home." 

Dancers might want to check out FitXR, which offers boxing and dance programs ranging from beginner to advanced workouts. The workouts come in a range of intensities varying in length from three minutes all the way up to 60-minute workouts. 

It was quite striking how the combination of virtual reality with music boosted exercise-related pleasure.

If you want to combine music with something a little more violent, Beat Saber offers sabers that slice through moving targets to upbeat tunes. "It’s a bit like a cross between Guitar Hero with Star Wars—though neither franchise is connected to Beat Saber,” according to a reviewer at The Sun.

"The blocks come at you, each with a directional arrow that signals how you should slice through it. Your left and right lightsabers are different colors, and correspond to various blocks."

I’m excited by the idea of exercising in virtual reality, and just looking at the dizzying list of available exercise titles made my heart rate increase. Now, if only I could find an Oculus Quest that’s in stock.

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