For decades, video games have been viewed as a sedentary pursuit, completely at odds with superior physical fitness and well-being. But the idea of leveraging virtual reality and video games to encourage more exercise is a new frontier in the pursuit of fitness that’s gathering steam and likely coming to a gym or home near you in the not too distant future.
Virtual reality fitness, or VR fitness, is the idea of using cutting-edge, immersive VR technology to create a whole new workout environment anywhere in the world. These games feature a boxy headset that blocks out light from the real world and plunks you right into the middle of a virtual environment where you can engage in all manner of games and pursuits, from bowling and boxing to shooter games and cognitive challenges.
With games that use VR as a means of exercising, once you don the headset and grab the hand-held devices that communicate with the gaming platform, you’re ready to punch, kick, swing, slide, slice or swipe your way to an engaging and engrossing workout that can cure the boredom and burnout you might be feeling from other more traditional workout options.
When using VR fitness tools, your body acts as the controller. Instead of sitting and watching your avatar move through space on a screen as in traditional gaming, you make the movements with your body that you want to see your virtual persona undertake. And therein lies the fitness.
Finding the Fitness Angle in VR
Aaron Stanton, founder and director of the San Francisco-based Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise, an independent research and ratings organization created to study the health impact of virtual and augmented reality, is working to bring about the VR revolution in fitness. He says his initial inspiration for developing the VR Institute stems from a trip to England a few years ago.
There, he saw a government health campaign poster that featured a photo of a young kid sitting on a couch with a game controller in his hand and a blank stare on his face. The headline said, “Risk an early death, just do nothing,” Stanton recalls. “And that’s the mental image that most people have of video games. That it’s a sedentary lifestyle.”
But that’s not necessarily true, it turns out. Some games, Stanton has since confirmed, can burn a fair number of calories. And games that are specifically designed to get you up and moving can rival the most intense spin class or group workout setting for calorie burn and overall fitness benefits.
Stanton realized this sometime in 2016 while playing a game called Audioshield that has players blocking musical notes with their body. Software he was using that tracks “how many times and how long you play different games showed that I’d played 110 hours’ worth of Audioshield. Looking at that, I was feeling somewhat embarrassed, but then I thought about it and realized that it feels like I’m doing exercise. That makes my VR unit by far the most effective exercise equipment I’ve ever bought. I’ve owned a treadmill, an elliptical and a rowing machine, and I’ve never spent 110 hours on any of them.”
Can Video Games Really Be Exercise?
To help prove his idea, Stanton founded the VR Institute and reached out to kinesiology researchers at San Francisco State University. Jimmy Bagley, assistant professor of kinesiology at SFSU, was one of those researchers who began investigating the question of whether VR could be used for exercise.
When the two first met, Bagley was doing most of his research in human physiology, focusing on muscle performance. He was working with athletes, older adults and those with chronic disabilities to gain a better understanding of what makes muscles work and how to get the most out of them in every situation.
Initially, Bagley thought using VR for exercise might be a gimmick. “I figured if your heart rate is going up, maybe you’re just scared or there’s a sympathetic nervous system response, like when you watch a movie. It doesn’t mean you’re exercising.”
So they decided to test it in the lab to find out what was actually going on. Using VO2 max testing equipment — which is a face mask and tube system that athletes sometimes wear while running or biking to exhaustion to measure their physical fitness when training at the elite level — they put participants into the VR systems and fired up some games.
What the SFSU researchers found was that, yes, indeed, there was real, “moderate to vigorous intensity” exercise occurring when people engaged in certain kinds of VR-based video games, Bagley says.
The team was able to measure the exact calorie expenditure for various different games. And from there, the idea was born to test and rate different VR games so that users interested in harnessing VR for improved fitness and well-being could make more informed choices of how to use their gaming time to better meet their fitness goals.
Making Exercise Engaging
“These games weren’t necessarily made for fitness at first,” Bagley says, but gradually, certain games such as Beat Saber and Supernatural have earned a reputation as being calorie-burners that many people find enormously fun and engaging too.
Beat Saber is a rhythm game where you slash the beats with a pair of sabers as they come flying toward you. Supernatural puts users into exotic, Instagram-worthy locations as the backdrop for a fast-paced, coached workout that has you swinging bats to knock out targets that come towards you while squatting and moving side to side to avoid obstacles, similar to Beat Saber.
In fact, it’s that engagement piece — so you stay motivated to exercise — that makes VR for exercise such a compelling idea. Being immersed in a VR environment creates a diversion that keeps the brain engaged and not thinking about how hard your body’s working.
“We use this thing called ‘rating of perceived exertion,'” which is when the researcher asks the participant how hard they feel they’re working when exercising, Bagley says. “We ask people in real time and consistently across the board, when they’re using VR. They always estimate their perceived exertion as lower than what it is.”
This is encouraging because it means the user is so engaged with the game itself that they don’t realize how much they’re exerting themselves. Theoretically, that means they can stick with it longer and play more, producing more fitness results. This altered perception of exertion is also often observed in athletes playing sports like soccer or basketball “because you’re so focused on the task at hand” that you’re not thinking about feeling winded, he explains.
VR fitness can also be a highly social way of getting exercise in, given that many VR programs are designed as multiplayer games that involve other people. For example, Stanton, who’s currently residing in Vietnam, says that he plays a tennis-type VR game with his dad twice a week. His dad is in Manhattan, Kansas, and the time they spend together playing is priceless. The fitness element is just an added bonus.
This is part of why VR fitness games can be such a powerful way to get your exercise — many users say they don’t even feel like they’re working out at all, but rather just playing a game or hanging out with friends or loved ones who might be miles away.
Bagley says another reason VR is so appealing is because it can be done in short increments throughout the day, without the same sweat investment you’d get in a group fitness setting or more traditional cardio training setting.
“The American College of Sports Medicine’s guidelines say you should get 30 minutes of exercise per day. A few years ago, they said 10-minute increments are fine. Now they’re saying any increment is fine, as long as it increases the heart rate,” Bagley says.
VR can help fill that need. Instead of feeling like you have to schlep to the gym for that 30 minutes of cardio, slip the headset on for a few 5- or 10-minute game sessions throughout the day. “I kind of microdose my exercise throughout the day, and feel way better than if I were to sit in my chair all day,” he says.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
By 2020, Stanton says the question of whether you could get exercise while using VR games had largely been settled, so the institute pivoted to determining which games provide what levels of exercise.
“There’s a balance you’re looking for that the game will burn energy but not so much that you can’t play it for an hour,” Stanton says. The institute now rates games based on the measured calories per minute you can expend while playing.
There’s definitely a demand for this information and for VR-based exercise options. “The trend really accelerated when COVID hit,” Stanton says, as people were creating home gyms and exercising at home as much as possible. VR is a means of “traveling” beyond your own four walls yet still exercising at home.
Since establishing that VR can provide meaningful exercise options, Bagley’s team has also continued studying other questions surrounding VR for exercising, including perception, motivation and cognition. They’re working on how to engage people to get started and keep going with this or other fitness options.
Engagement is “the hard part with fitness. We’re looking at ways we can make games that don’t just track fitness, which is pretty easy.” Bagley and his colleagues are trying to develop games that respond to your exercise. In other words, games that will become smarter and adapt to the user as their fitness levels improve to keep the user coming back day after day for more exercise with constantly challenging and motivating game-playing.
VR is an evolving area of fitness, and currently one of the major impediments to more widespread use is that the equipment can be a little pricey. Headsets run in the hundreds of dollars, and individual games usually retail for $20 or $30 each.
But as often is the case with electronics, prices are likely to drop as the technology develops and is more widely adopted. Bagley says he thinks that in a few years’ time, the headsets will look “a lot more streamlined and cool looking,” like a regular pair of glasses rather than the boxy devices they are now.
“I think it’s going to be as ubiquitous as cell phones in a decade or so,” Bagley says. We may even see fitness studios popping up offering this sort of approach to working out — a kind of 21st century wellness arcade.
In the meantime, if you have the means to purchase a headset or can borrow one, give it a try. You might just find that getting in your daily dose of exercise becomes child’s play.
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Update 03/18/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.