My VR workouts were fun, but I wanted to know if they were actually effective. So I visited an exercise lab and put on a virtual reality headset to test out four different fitness apps. When the helmet came off, I learned that I had fidgeted for 80 minutes, sweated my mascara, and purposely passed the salsa in front of a colleague.
I’m not the only one exploring VR for exercise: Americans’ Google searches for VR fitness hit an all-time high in January. Almost a quarter of adults online in the United States say they are interested in buying a VR headset, according to research firm Forrester, and 18% say they would use a headset primarily for exercising.
Ads for the Quest 2 headset from Facebook parent company Meta, which connects to a variety of apps, promised “cardio that doesn’t suck”. But even people who love that heart-pounding feeling may decide that virtual reality deserves a place in our home gyms.
In testing, the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise (VRHI) team found that popular VR fitness apps can be just as vigorous as common real-world workouts. In a 2018 paper, authors including Jimmy Bagley, associate professor of kinesiology at San Francisco State University and principal investigator at VRHI, found evidence that exercising in virtual reality leads people to under- estimate their own effort.
“People don’t realize how much they’re exercising,” he told me. “That’s the goal, right?”
This seemed true of all four apps I tried. Take Supernatural, a game where the player travels through realistic landscapes and kicks colorful balloons while crouching under obstacles. During 30 minutes of play, the subjects’ metabolic rate increased at about the same level as cycling: 11.44 times their resting rate, according to the VR Institute. (That’s 11.44 METs, which means the metabolic equivalent of the task.)
Other renowned VR workouts are also effective. The Thrill of the Fight, a boxing game, earned a MET score of 9.28. FitXR, which offers boxing, dance, and interval training, came in at 7.94 METs, or about the equivalent of tennis. And Until You Fall, a sword-fighting adventure game, scored 6.5 METs. (For comparison, Wii Fit scored 3.8 in this analysis.)
According to Gartner, people who have spent time in virtual reality seem to show more affinity for fitness than for other uses. principal managing analyst Kyle Rees. That could be important for Meta as it tries to sell its $299 headsets, especially since many people don’t want to get into VR.
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Why Virtual Reality Can Make Workouts Effective
Virtual reality helps with fitness the same way it helps with other types of workouts, says Derek Belch, founder and CEO of virtual reality company Strivr.
“Your body is in one place, but your brain thinks you’re somewhere else,” he said.
That’s a big advantage for athletes memorizing games, managers learning to fire people, or regular people doing cardio at home, he noted. Strivr was born out of Belch’s search for mastery with the Stanford University football team – now he is developing VR training for companies including Wal-Mart.
Gamification, which hands out rewards when we play longer or harder, is another key, Belch said. The combination of gamification and “dissociation” — where we forget we’re exercising — has the potential to change the way Americans train, Bagley said.
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The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week, but only 20% of us meet those criteria, according to the organization. VR games or fitness apps are one way to do this, according to Bagley. They’ve also hit a sweet spot: more active than sedentary video games and arguably more engaging than repetitive, screen-free workouts.
Barriers to Widespread Adoption
Despite its promises, fitness VR has its pitfalls, the biggest of which is the hardware itself. Helmets are bulky, sweaty and make a lot of people sick. Belch told me app developers are to blame — when what’s happening in the virtual environment doesn’t match our physical movements, it makes us feel uneasy.
Bagley, on the other hand, said things will get better as the hardware improves. This is the case with any new technology, he noted, comparing Meta’s next headphone model to early iPhones. Was the iPhone 3G cool? Sure. But Apple still had a long way to go, he said.
Meta spokeswoman Johanna Peace said the Quest 2 headset is 10% lighter than the original, and the company continues to work to make the hardware more comfortable. As for sweat, Meta plans to release grips for controllers and an “exercise-optimized facial interface” later this year, she said.
Other problems are more difficult to rule out: people don’t know about virtual reality and those who know about it are not enthusiastic. Gartner found that 73% of consumers hadn’t heard of “metaverse” — the term Meta used for its virtual reality efforts — or couldn’t describe what it might mean. Among consumers with some familiarity, only 18% said they were excited, while 21% were concerned and 60% had no opinion. Rees said consumers are likely worried that virtual reality is “just another ploy by the Facebook family of companies” to capture more of our time and attention.
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“Of course, no equipment, device, or exercise program can be everything for everyone,” Meta’s Peace said. “Our community tells us that VR is a great way to mix up their usual routine with something fun and new, but it doesn’t have to replace all other modes of exercise.”
If I’m any indication, the so-called scheme works. I may not want to hand over any more of my personal data to Meta, but these little Supernatural balloons are just waiting to be popped.