Working Out at Home is Working Out

Supernatural proves you don’t need a gym or to leave home to stay fit

“Good job!” yells my trainer. “Really squat down!” she adds and then, “Let’s finish strong!”

I do not finish strong, but I finish, pull off my Oculus Quest VR headset and wipe the sweat beading on my bald head.

For the moment, I’m done with the virtual gym.

Working out in VR
 Lifewire / Nusha Ashjaee

I’ve never been a gym rat but have worked out for most of my adult life. For me that means push-ups, pull-ups, curls, and crunches. I have minimal equipment and no distractions. I’m very used to exercising at home and haven’t spent time in a gym since I was 22.

I’m not necessarily the norm.

There are, according to Statista, almost 40,000 gyms in the U.S. and approximately 60 million Americans have gym memberships. That’s more than a quarter of all American adults (there are approximately 209 million people over 18).

Virtually all of those gyms are now closed as Americans (and people around the world, too) follow COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home and social-distancing orders. This means it’s been weeks since they lifted heavy iron, ran on a treadmill besides a dozen other sweaty runners, or spun in a tightly packed spin class.

While some gyms like 24 Hour Fitness have sent customers to their online apps to continue workouts from home and some companies are adding workout options to existing products, anecdotal evidence shows people are changing their fitness routines. When I asked in a Twitter poll if, with their gyms closed, people are working out less, 15% said they were, almost 10% complained they do not have the equipment at home, and 43% answered “What’s a workout?” I was surprised, however, to see that almost 32% said they are working out more at home.

spin class
The next spin class you attend will have spinners at least six feet apart.  Run, Fat Boy, Run / Beech Hill Films

Work it Out

Even as people follow stay-at-home orders, many are taking long walks (while keeping a safe distance from others) as a form of exercise. Before the pandemic, I walked to work in the city every day and did it at a brisk enough pace that my Apple Watch gave me credit for a walking workout.

Others have home equipment like the increasingly popular Peloton, which, as of 2019, has sold over 400,000 spinning (stationary) bikes (the bikes cost $2,494, including delivery, and then there’s a $39 monthly subscription fee). Others might have something like the Hydrow rowing machine, which costs $2,199 plus a $38 per month membership.

In both cases, members workout on their home equipment while being guided by on-screen coaches. Hydrow goes the extra step of putting you, through the 22-inch screen, on real waterways throughout the world.

A Smaller World

I don’t have room for a Pelton or Hydrow and do not see myself spending more than $2,000 on equipment. On the other hand, I know there’s value in the coaching and immersive experience.

I’ve been tracking and using VR since its early, wonky days in the 1990s and have cheered its leaner, sleeker and more powerful resurgence in this century. My current favorite VR headset is the $399 Oculus Quest. It’s Facebook’s self-contained six-degrees of freedom headset that doesn’t need a phone or PC and ships with a powerful pair of controllers. I’ve used it to solve puzzles, play games, watch movies, and even interact socially. I’ve never worked out with the Quest.

Supernatural, which launched this week from VR company Within, is a brand-new virtual reality app that takes the in-gym, coach-driven workout experience and squeezes it into the Quest VR headset. The app is free (no new equipment besides the Quest!) and the monthly membership is $19 (after a free, 30-day trial).

I wondered if a VR workout would make me feel or look stupid. Turns out I was 50 percent right.

Supernatural Hands On

Within gave me early access to the app and I was anxious to try it. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I worried that I would not be up to the task (I’m in OK shape but not endurance shape) and I wondered if a VR workout would make me feel or look stupid. Turns out I was 50 percent right.

I did have to install the Supernatural app on my iPhone and then, after a lengthy Quest update (it had been months since I had last used it), the app installed, which asked me about my age and height, but not my weight (an odd omission) and showed me a code that let me pair the headset with the app. The system also let me pair my Apple Watch to track my heart rate, though it didn’t turn that off when the workout ended.

I had to find the most open area in my house, which turns out to be my kitchen. Quest is designed to let you create a guardian area. If you step out of it while wearing the headset, the VR image disappears, and you see your real world. I made sure I could stretch my arms out in all directions to ensure I wouldn’t slam an arm into a counter (I did once anyway).

Inside the app I saw a series of a workout options and gorgeous vistas. In the beginning, you’re greeted by a trainer in tight-fitting workout wear, which instantly reminds you that you are not in as good a shape as you think you are.

She gave me a little pep talk, told me to stretch this way and that, and then disappeared. I was soon immersed in my first workout. Somehow, I jumped right past a short, beginner, 3-minute workout and dove deep into a three-part, almost 20-minute endurance test.

The bad news is this almost killed me (kidding!).

The good news is that this is a simple yet remarkably effective workout approach.
Inside Supernatural, your remotes are transformed into a pair of bats (or batons), one black, one white. Virtually all workouts consist of you swinging those bats to hit white or black balls inside translucent cones (you hit the balls, not the cones). The balls fly at you at various speeds and from various directions. Hit them right and they explode. Hit them wrong and they bounce away. To work the rest of your body, you must simultaneously squat and angle your body to fit through scalene triangles that are also speeding toward your body.

Inside Supernatural
Meeting my coach for the first time. Within

Sound Workout Garden

All the while, pop songs (Within has partnerships with Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group) are playing and synchronizing with the appearance and trajectory of the balls. This helped get into a kind of whacking rhythm. Meanwhile, the coach is shouting encouragement. I used the Quest’s built-in-speakers but, until I raised the volume, I couldn’t always hear her. If you do this, I’d recommend using earphones.

Eventually, I got the hang of the whole thing and even tried to physically respond to her orders for me to squat further, tighten my core, and whack with more strength.

In the real world, my wife peeked into the kitchen, saw me swinging my arms like a deranged semaphore, groaned, and said I looked ridiculous. I, on the other hand, was standing in a Great Wall of China vista (or was it the Machu Pichu ruins?) exploding gleaming white and black balls with my mighty bats.

There’s little warning when the balls start coming from a different direction, but eventually I started picking up on my coach's warnings and how the graphics changed to draw my eye and body one way or the other. I was spinning and whacking with all my might, while also keeping track of the virtual yoga mat under my feet. Supernatural recommends you put a real mat on the floor, do your best to line it up with the virtual one, and then use Supernatural barefoot so you can feel your position. I don’t own a yoga mat, but, in general, I stayed in the virtual mat space.

man working out
Real life versus in the workout VR. Yup, I looked ridiculous. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Feeling the Burn

I finished with my first workout and noted my overall score, my accuracy, and my power ratings for that workout. Supernatural does have a community feature so you can follow and compete with friends. Owing to my natural distaste for gyms, I might not choose to let anyone follow me, but I must admit that I did like seeing my name on a leader board (only possible because virtually no one is using Supernatural yet). The stats are all available on the app, as well.

When I pulled off the headset, it was covered in sweat. Yes, it was gross. Supernatural is offering, while supplies last, a free Quest silicon liner to founding members that might help keep the headset cleaner.

I was out of breath; my heart was pounding, and every part of my body was buzzing. I wondered if this is what spinning is like. It was kind of exhilarating and I returned for more workouts, which are designed to, for instance, promote core strength, flexibility, and to work different muscle groups. Within is adding new workouts every day.

The system could use a bit more work to help guide newbies on much lighter workouts, but if you are looking for a full-body, intense fitness regimen, you should consider Supernatural.

Man working out in VR
This is how I imagined I looked in Supernatural. Within

So What

This pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of life and, for many of us, introduced almost daily, crushing anxiety. Exercise is a proven way of reducing stress. Without gyms, equipment, or even the ability to particulate in group or teams sports like golf and tennis, we have to figure out a way to stay fit at home.

Now is probably not the time for many of us to spend thousands on equipment, but a $400 VR headset might be swingable and Supernatural’s $19.99 a month subscription fee is equivalent to some gym membership fees and could be manageable (though $9.99 right now might be better).

Personally, I would never have imagined myself wearing a bulky helmet, while blindly (to the real world) lunging, twisting my body, and swinging my arms until I was drenched in sweat, but then these are strange times. Just ask my wife.

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