There’s probably not a person on this planet who hasn’t wanted to escape their reality in the middle of a tough workout. Huffing and puffing on a stationary bike (or some other piece of equipment) surrounded by hordes of other sweaty people counting down the minutes until they’ve met their goals, is rarely an exciting experience.
And while true virtual reality platforms—where a person’s environment is completely replaced by a digital one—are still barely scratching the surface of the fitness world as of 2019, the industry is growing, and for good reason.
“In 2018 VR is estimated to have grown 30%, largely due to the popularity of the PlayStation VR. The launch of (Facebook’s) Oculus Quest (in 2019) is expected to be another huge leap forward,” says Jordan Higgins, Head of Immersive Experience at U.Group, where its emerging tech incubator, ByteCubed Labs owns PRE-GAME PREP, a holographic football training system.
“Fitness applications are more supplemental than they are a primary form of exercise, but the novelty can do a lot to break up a monotonous workout routine.” The idea being that you can be transported to a beautiful location like the Swiss Alps for your next stationary bike ride, rather than having to stare at the sweaty back of a fellow gym-goer.
But it’s not just the ability to “escape” the real world that makes virtual reality platforms an exciting new world for exercise.
“We can track new data points for better insight into performance,” Higgins says. “And combining immersive VR with other wearable sensors like the Apple Watch, you can really start to see a connected ecosystem that will drive the next generation of immersive fitness.”
Pros of Using Virtual Reality for Fitness
As with any exercise trend, there are always benefits and drawbacks to jumping on the bandwagon.
It should come as no surprise that it’s going to be more appealing to those who are interested in gaming, technology, and tracking performance metrics than those who try to live their lives in a more disconnected, “off-grid” fashion. That said, everyone should consider the pros and cons before diving in headfirst.
Breaking Up Monotony
The most dedicated exercisers seem to have no problem hitting the gym every day, doing more-or-less the same workout, and continuing the trend ad nauseam. Trainers like to tout the importance of creating a habit, developing internal motivation, and looking for intrinsic rewards to help you continue to exercise.
The reality is, though, that most people struggle with this no-nonsense approach. Doing the same workout day-in and day-out can lead to boredom and disenchantment with exercise.
Due to the internet-connected nature of VR headsets and other devices, tracking and monitoring key health metrics also becomes more accessible for users.
“Gone is the drudgery of doing the same old workout routine in a crowded and stinky gym,” says Mat Chacon, the CEO of VR company Doghead Simulations, and a VR-exercise advocate who went from fat-to-fit by working out in VR. “People can use VR to transport to any environment they desire—the moon, the beach, under the ocean, or wherever they want.
Using VR, people can even load a 3D model of a boxing ring and practice ducks and slips and then do yoga in a Japanese zen garden without ever leaving their home.”
The beauty of exercising in a 3D virtual environment is that you can move and interact within games themselves. These technologies, which essentially turn the workout experience into a virtual competition—with yourself or with others—can keep exercise fun while helping to distract you from the work you’re actually doing.
As of 2019, the number of full-fledged VR games designed specifically for exercise is relatively low, but there are games that, by their very nature, require full-body movement within the virtual environment, turning them into a workout. “I would argue the best, and most viral form of exercise mixed into gaming would be from the game Beat Saber,” says Steve Kamb, the founder of NerdFitness, a website dedicated to helping nerds and gamers get fit. “Think of it like Guitar Hero, except it’s immersive, and you’re playing drums and dodging blocks, and getting a really solid cardiovascular experience.”
But Beat Saber isn’t the only option—Kamb mentions Creed: Rise to Glory and First Person Tennis as other popular options—and as the interest in VR for exercise grows, developers will continue bringing more new games to the market.
Avatars That Reduce Real-World Self-Consciousness
“Gymtimidation” is a very real experience for people new to exercise or those who are trying a workout for the first time. For any number of reasons, you may feel self-conscious or out-of-place, whether it’s because you’re thinking about your body or fitness level, you don’t know how to use the equipment or do the exercises, or you just don’t know anyone at the gym.
VR pretty much wipes out all those concerns. “VR provides a support network and avatars actually give people a ‘mask’ to hide any insecurities and fears that might be preventing them from going to a more traditional gym or fitness class,” says Chacon. “People may also open up more than they might in a face-to-face setting or within a video chat.”
Connection With Others
Given that virtual reality platforms and games are connected to the Internet, you can quite literally connect with other users all over the world. And not just other gamers. “You can interact with coaches in Brazil, meal planners in New York, or yoga instructors in Mumbai,” Chacon says. “You can see each other and interact as though you’re all in the same place at the same time. It’s nice to high-five fellow VR workout participants and encourage each other to keep going.”
No Waiting for Equipment
Most people use VR systems within the comfort of their own homes, which means they can simply log in and start exercising whenever they have time. This beats having to sign up early for a popular class or waiting in line for a treadmill or bench press during peak hours at the gym.
Cons of Virtual Reality and Exercise
Cost of VR Systems
The earliest iterations of VR devices, like most new technologies, were incredibly expensive, making purchase by the general public largely infeasible. But as technology has improved and more companies have entered the market, the cost of tethered and untethered systems continues to drop.
As of 2019, the Oculus Quest ranges from $399 to $499, the pared-down Oculus Go ranges from $199 to $249, PlayStation VR bundles start at $299, and HTC Vive prices start at more than $600. Of course, these are consumer-friendly headset systems that don’t offer some of the features that more extensive VR systems include (some use full bodysuits and specialized treadmills), but they still aren’t a price everyone can afford.
Certainly, you wouldn’t want to throw down several hundred dollars for a VR system if you weren’t completely confident you’d enjoy your exercise experience.
If you’re electing to use computer-based VR systems, you need to make sure your computer’s specs measure up, and if you’re running VR through your home internet connection, you need to make sure you have enough bandwidth to load the graphics and keep the system running seamlessly. “You should make sure you have enough horsepower to run the VR software you like,” says Jeanette DePatie, a certified fitness trainer who has spoken at tradeshows like CES about virtual reality and other technologies.
Wearing a Headset While Exercising
To replace your real-world environment with a virtual 3D environment, you have to wear a headset. Some of these headsets are tethered to an external system, which means you have to work around a physical tether, while other headsets are stand-alone. These stand-alone headsets are either connected wirelessly to an external system or are stand-alone units that enable you to interact in a virtual environment without having to stay within range of connected sensors.
Regardless, the headset is a requirement of virtual reality exercise, and it’s not something that will appeal to everyone. Wearing a VR headset isn’t necessarily that different from wearing a heavier pair of snowboard goggles, but the headset will naturally restrict your view of your real-world environment, and to stay secure, you’ll need to secure them snugly to your head. If either of these requirements sound uncomfortable, you may not want to test the waters of VR exercise.
All the Sweat
Even if you’re comfortable with the idea of wearing a headset while exercising, you need to remember that you’ll be wearing a headset while sweating. “I can’t stress this enough—invest in cleaning wipes and a headset cover,” says Higgins. The wipes keep your headset clean and hygienic for each successive workout, and the headset cover makes it easier to clean and more comfortable to wear.
Once again, wearing a headset while exercising can put a wrench in an otherwise-great workout. If the view of your living room is blocked out and replaced with an empty boxing ring, you may inadvertently run into your coffee table or trip over your dog. Whenever possible, set up your VR system in a wide-open environment that’s unlikely to be interrupted by other people or animals during your workouts.
Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality
One thing to keep in mind is that virtual reality (VR) is not the same as augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (MR), and even if VR isn’t an appealing option to you, AR or MR just might be. “AR adds a layer on top of a live view of the real world,” explains DePatie. “For example, when playing Pokemon Go, the player sees the real world on their phone from the phone’s camera, but also sees animated characters ‘layered on top’ of the real world.”
While apps like Pokemon Go aren’t specifically marketed as fitness apps, they require you to move around in the real world, increasing physical activity and encouraging exercise. AR apps are often inexpensive (or even free) and offer a fun way for people to “test the waters” of the limits of real-world reality and an alternate reality.
Mixed reality is kind of like a “best of both worlds” alternative. “It combines elements of VR, like the head-mounted display and 360-degrees of motion, with AR, like objects and items from the real-world environment,” DePatie says. “MR platforms either use clear lenses (like HoloLens) or integrated cameras. I think this is where the future is really going to be with fitness apps, but the hardware is still fairly rare and expensive in this category.”
Virtual Reality Gyms
If you’re not ready to buy your own VR system, but you’d like to see what it’s like to work out in a virtual environment, keep an eye on the gyms opening up in your area. The first-ever full-fledged VR gym, Black Box, opened in San Francisco in 2019, and entrepreneurs in other large cities are likely to follow suit, proving that VR really might be the future of exercise.