Virtual Reality Fitness? ‘Yeah, It’s a Workout’

Feb. 23, 2022 — Traditionally, if you wanted to try exercise, you could join a gym or jog around the block.

But now, newcomers have yet another high-tech option that’s helping some of them off the couch to move their bodies at home, rather than venturing outside the front door.

“I’m the laziest person you will ever meet,” says Amanda Bousfield, 45, of Toronto. “I had no use for exercise. I knew theoretically I had to do it, but I didn’t want to.”

The stay-at-home mom had battled her weight all her life and says she was feeling “broken mentally” when she tried something new about a year ago:

Virtual reality fitness.

Now, she exercises almost every day immersed in a breathtaking virtual reality (like a mountaintop) while coaches guide her through workouts choreographed to hit songs from her youth.

“It was like a lightbulb went off,” she says, when she slipped on the virtual reality headpiece and started moving. “Like, ‘Why am I sitting here thinking about the worst things in life when I could be doing this and thinking about the better days?’”

That was 40 pounds ago, and she’s encouraged enough to try other exercises and improve her eating habits.

Bousfield is one of a growing army of virtual reality athletes working out on various applications and platforms that bring a similar experience. The Oculus brand — part of the Facebook metaverse — had a huge holiday season, selling its virtual reality (VR) headset at a price — $299 — that makes it affordable for many people to try video games, explore different parts of the world, or take part in other virtual fun, including exercise.

Appeals to Many No- Gymgoers

Bousfield loves the Supernatural app and others like it. These are not mere video games but legitimate workout tools, users say. Trainers and doctors agree that virtual reality is appealing to a part of the population that resists traditional exercise and finds a gym intimidating, with its noise and buff members.

“VR can transform people’s fitness routines, and sometimes even their health and quality of life, too,” says Johanna Peace, a spokesperson for Meta, the company that owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. “VR has provided people a new way to get active, while having a ton of fun. Especially for people who may have struggled to find a routine that worked for them in the past, that’s powerful.”

Oculus started primarily for gaming, she says, but with an eye on social connection, productivity, and more.

The rapid growth and popularity of the fitness use case proves that point,” Peace says. “It shows that VR as a technology is developing into what we predicted it will be: the next computing platform, a multi-functional device that people will one day use as commonly as they use phones and laptops today.”

Meta doesn’t release sales figures, but Peace says the Quest 2 Oculus device was among the hottest holiday gifts and was featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things. The Oculus app was No. 1 on Apple’s App Store on Christmas Day, she said.

In VR fitness and health, Oculus is not alone. Other manufacturers are trying to reach the market as well. So are fitness brands and influencers like Les Mills, Katie Austin, FitProVR, and Alyson Stoner.

VR is appealing to many non-gymgoers because it’s fun — more like playing, they say, than exercising. It can raise the heart rate and burn calories, and it’s private, without the gym’s crowds and mirrors.

For people who have never exercised, it can be a bridge to healthier lifestyles. For people who have limited ability to leave the home — because of age or a medical condition — it can be life-changing.

For example, MyndVR promotes its VR devices and programming to help residents of senior living facilities “visit” foreign locations or even their hometowns.

The Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark University in Massachusetts has been using virtual reality to address mental health concerns and has found it to be effective, says Angela M. Bazydlo, a media relations manager.

Clark opened a sensory immersion room at the Solnit Children’s Center, a psychiatric residential treatment facility in East Windsor, CT, for boys 13-17 whose backgrounds often include trauma, depression, or anxiety. VR devices can calm the boys and help them express their feelings.

A study at the University of Washington showed VR therapy was “promising” in improving joint mobility and easing pain.

“If you think an elliptical can help you get fit, VR can also help you get fit,” says Aaron Stanton, founder and director of the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise.

He formed the institute working with the Department of Kinesiology at San Francisco State University to measure how many calories are burned playing VR games. The institute rates dozens of VR games on its website as the equivalent of, say, walking or a more intense exercise like biking.

Engaging Multiple Senses

For in-home athletes, VR consoles take up less space than home gyms and exercise bikes. You just need a headset that resembles oversized wraparound sunglasses.

Andrea Paul, MD, a venture capitalist and adviser, says users need to be careful of falls and hitting objects in the house while wearing a VR headset.

“I still think the benefits tend to outweigh the downsides on average, but I would just advise older patients to be cautious in creating a safe space to engage in VR fitness. Working out on a rug or another softer surface than a hardwood floor is probably a good idea,” she says.

VR excites many of the senses, and that can be exhilarating — the high-def images of world wonders; upbeat familiar music; even vibrations felt in the hand controllers when “striking” at virtual targets.

Think about when people say they “can’t” do their cardio routine without their headphones. Now add sight and tactile stimulation, and the time goes by even faster.

Trainer Karen Joseph, 65, of Tampa, FL, says VR exercise is ideal for her because she has neuropathy in her legs, which makes running and other exercise difficult.

The former bodybuilding champ, U.S. military veteran, and grandmother of three children loves that she can work out at home and around the schedules of the kids and her training clients.

“I’m usually soaked when I’m finished,” she says. “My heart rate is up. Yeah, it’s a workout.”

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