Getting Fit in Virtual Reality

VR boxer
by Amy Roberts
Writer and Fitness Professional

Both hardcore gamers and fitness enthusiasts reap the cardio benefits of working out in virtual reality.

A funny thing happened when hardcore gamers started playing games in virtual reality (VR): they broke a sweat. While jumping, hitting and dodging imaginary opponents, players inadvertently got a workout.

Exercising without intending to exercise is an unexpected but welcome benefit of VR gaming.

“VR offers the act of being put into an experience that makes you work out, as opposed to working out in an experience,” said Michael De Medeiros, chief content officer of VR Fitness Insider, and the former editor-in-chief of Men’s Fitness magazine.

Could VR be the next fitness craze to inspire Americans to get moving?

Gamers Getting Fit

VR gaming helped motivate Tim Donahey, a personal trainer and former competitive power lifter, who found himself out of shape and looking for an escape after a rough patch in his personal life.

“I got myself a Vive and I immediately experienced how much it can mobilize you — getting your heart rate up, quickening your breathing,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can cheat my way back into shape — I’ve found a shortcut into fitness.’”

He chronicled his 50-day challenge on Reddit. He changed his diet and worked out for one hour a day, five days a week, exclusively using the games on his viewed through his headset — such as Audioshield, Sword Master VR, Bitslap and Fruit Ninja VR.

Punching way to weight loss.
Tim Donahey punched his way to weight loss using VR games. Image courtesy of Tim Donahey.

“These games are actually fairly physical,’” said Kim Pallister, director of Intel’s Virtual Reality Center of Excellence. He said the boxing game Knockout League, for example, is a killer workout.

“You’re holding these two controllers that weigh just a few ounces each,” he said. “But you get into a 20-minute boxing session of fighting a fictional opponent and you get tired.”

Donahey lost more than 14 pounds and almost 4 inches off his waist, and gained a business idea in the process. He started VR Fit at a local fitness club in Columbus, Ohio to lead people through the same VR exercise program.

He’s also formed a tech start-up, ATG Studios, to develop fitness-forward games for the HTC Vive.

“Our mission is to make gamers some of the fittest people on the planet by giving them a fully realized VR social sphere that intersects gaming, mobility, coaching and competition,” he said.

Gamification of Exercise

Donahey isn’t the only one capitalizing on VR fitness fun. Companies like VIRZoom and HoloFit have added a VR headset to traditional exercise equipment, such as exercise bikes, rowers and steppers, turning a ho-hum cardio fitness experience into a jaunt through a virtual world.

Some innovators have taken it a literal step further, creating multidirectional walk/run treadmills, such as Virtuix Omni and Infinadeck, so you’re able to stride, slide, scoot and jog your way through the games.

Icaros produces an entirely different experience, loading users facedown into a skydiving-like body position and requiring movements of the limbs (and a lot of core engagement) to “fly” in the game play.

Beyond cardio workouts, strength training is an area where people definitely need some motivation, according to former Body Building founder Ryan DeLuca.

DeLuca and his team at Black Box VR have been hard at work developing a resistance-training machine that combines VR with a cable-pulley machine. Computer-controlled tension in the handles integrate pushing and pulling actions (with realistic difficulty) into game play.

“The biggest challenge for all of us developers is to up the engagement factor,” said DeLuca. “It’s got to be social and it’s got to latch on to what makes other popular fitness experiences, like SoulCycle, fun.”

Broader Appeal

Exercising with VR can be a hard sell. VR headsets are large, heavy and don’t breathe well — although sweat-wicking covers can help — and without a demo, many people don’t understand how it works. VR costs and space requirements can be prohibitive, with equipment costs starting at $800 and up.

Flying in VR
Fitness enthusiasts get a core workout by “flying” on the Icaros. Image courtesy of Icaros.

However, smaller, lighter and untethered headsets are on their way, according to Intel’s Pallister. Developers are experimenting with additional wearable sensors, as well as biometric readers (for heart rate and galvanic skin response) to improve the overall active experience.

Most VR exercise experiences heavily focus on cardio. Aerobic exercise is essential — a recommended 150 minutes per week — and anything that gets people off the couch is a good thing, says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist and producer of the All About Fitness podcast.

“I think VR may be an interesting way to augment a workout or maybe engage people who otherwise might not be interested in fitness—the gamers and tech people in particular,” said exercise physiologist McCall.

Reaped Benefits

For Donahey, coming off his intensive VR workout program, he found it much easier to dive back into other real-life activities he’d previously enjoyed.

Heart rate working out on VR.
Tim Donahey tracked the cardio benefits of working out with VR games. Image courtesy of Tim Donahey.

“After my 50 days were up, I felt like Neo in The Matrix where he realizes, ‘I know Kung Fu’ — I could run five miles, swim a mile and bike 10 miles again, without having done those things,” he said. “I can’t say with certainty that I wouldn’t be here without VR, but it certainly made it seamless and fun.”

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