In the final days of 2020, Oculus quietly released a fitness tracker called the Oculus Move, which resides in its Quest headsets. Users who download the software can watch the calories they burn in virtual reality along with their physically active minutes and climb onto a ticker that hovers above or below their field of vision. By taking a deeper look at the tracker’s dashboard, they can also set goals and track their progress over time.
Move seems to be an endorsement from Oculus that fitness is a primary reason for many people to use VR. That is certainly the case with me. I’m not a big player in general, but for the past couple of months I’ve been training in virtual reality almost every day. And despite what you think about the incompatibility of video games and sports, these are serious workouts. Some end up gasping for breath and wringing the sweat off my beard.
In this sense, VR saved me from physical neglect. It has helped me grasp the motivation that has been slipping through my fingers since this godforsaken pandemic began.
During the spring, summer, and fall seasons of COVID, I did a couple of 20-mile bike rides every week. I occasionally found strength for longer trips on weekends, and covered 100 flat miles on Long Island on a hot Saturday. But it was always a struggle to move, and by the time winter hit New York, my journeys subsided. After a few weeks of inactivity, I decided to see what I could do in a Quest 2 ($ 299), the Oculus entry-level headset released in October.
Originally my plan was to use VR for a few minutes of exercise on particularly cold days. But then I started building a library of games and programs, some of which I viewed as warm-up exercises that helped me develop more serious cardio. Now I put together a workout every day based on my mood and energy level. Video games are part of my daily routine and I feel lazy without them.
What does VR training look like?
There are dozen of virtual reality programs out there that can help you burn a few calories, but right now there are only a few that specifically focus on exercise. By far my favorite is the subscription-based Supernatural program ($ 19 / month or a little less for annual memberships).
The training units usually last 10 to 30 minutes and are carried out fresh every day. After a short distance with a trainer, music will sound and triangles and targets will fly towards you. Your job is to crouch through the former and smash the latter with the virtual batons in your hands.
It’s simple enough, but the game goes fast, especially when it comes to “tough” workouts. You will have difficulty crouching in a triangular tunnel, which forces you to stay low while swinging your arms. Then you explode upward to hit an overhead target, rush left and right to thread the unusual dial triangles, and then attack a dozen more targets before crouching down again.
The movements burn, but are not immediately registered as an exercise. At least not in the strictest sense, because Supernatural feels more like a sport than a workout. You will increase your score by hitting targets, and with stronger swings you will earn more points. You can follow your progress on a ranking list. If you want the person to jump in front of you, you either have to work harder or longer.
To break the monotony of training, each workout takes you around the world. You can start on an arctic tundra, move to the edge of an Egyptian pyramid, and then end on the lip of a volcano in Ethiopia.
And each place is paired with a new song that determines the intensity of the workout. Supernatural invests heavily in royalties, and its programmers have wonderfully different tastes. I’ve worked with hip hop, southern rock, top 40. Some particularly motivating tracks come from the New York Dolls, Violent Femmes, Kendrick Lamar, and a Skrillex track that threatened to detach my arms from my body.
The other program I use a lot is FitXR ($ 29.99), which fulfills my craving for head-to-head competition. Six more VR users come to me with every training session. They appear as silhouettes on the left and right, and I do everything I can to make sure I get more points than them.
FitXR workouts are less new than Supernatural’s – there are only two environments and the music is not something I recognize. But it offers workout variety, with either boxing or cardio dance classes. I prefer the former, which works similarly to Supernatural with moving targets that are tuned to the beat. Only this time you have to switch between butts, crosses, hooks and overcuts depending on your goal.
A streak counter shows how many consecutive targets you’ve hit, and a power meter gives you a real-time score on each shot. Both metrics – accuracy and performance – play a role in your position on the leaderboard.
The cumulative effect of scorekeeping and instant feedback, available in both Supernatural and FitXR, is what researchers call gamification. “They deserve awards and rise,” says Dr. Tumay Tunur, a kinesiologist studying virtual reality at California State University in San Marcos. “It’s very rewarding and definitely helps with compliance.”
Consistency, says Tunur, is the most critical component of any exercise routine. And that’s what makes gamification strong: it gives you goals that numb the pain, and it makes you keep coming back.
Tunur’s VR fitness game of choice is the rhythmic Beat Saber ($ 29). “When I play, I say,” I’ll go in for 20 minutes for a quick workout, “she says.” Then 40 minutes later, I’ll still play. “
I can relate. When I feel sluggish, I delay my serious workout by playing a first-person shooter like Pistol Whip ($ 24.99) or climbing cliffs in The Climb ($ 29.99). My blood pumps in both games and after a few rounds I really want to sign up for Supernatural or FitXR.
According to Oculus Move, the built-in tracker, I burn 200 to 400 calories per workout, and in a 49-minute session, I clocked 549 o’clock. However, I suspect the numbers are inflated. I wore both Garmin and Fitbit trackers during my VR training and they registered 24 percent and 35 percent fewer, respectively.
But I’m not particularly interested in calories. The more important metric to me is effort, and the trackers told me I would keep my average heart rate close to 130, with a high near 170. These are legitimate numbers and they provide context for research into VR fitness.
Last year, kinesiologists at the University of Minnesota reviewed 15 studies on the subject. Among those who looked at physical outcomes such as body composition, fitness level, and muscle strength, two-thirds showed positive results from VR workouts. And that despite the relatively short study periods and outdated technology. (The oldest study in the analysis is from 2003, which was ancient in technical years.)
Perhaps the more interesting finding, however, comes from the studies that looked at the psychological effects of VR. According to research, virtual workouts can reduce fatigue and symptoms of depression.
I can tell here too. Virtual reality isn’t reality, but it transports me somewhere outside of my home. This is valuable as my local restaurants, bars, and gyms are inaccessible due to the pandemic. VR is a small ray of hope – a healthy one – on a day that might otherwise feel like a year-long pandemic Groundhog Day.
Virtual workouts and the future
If you’ve studied VR, you’ve heard for a decade that Oculus is about to make technology mainstream. What’s different now? It’s simple: accessibility.
Until recently, affordable consoles were just plastic or cardboard holsters that tied a smartphone to your head. You couldn’t do much with them. And even today, high-end glasses still need cables to tie you to an expensive gaming computer.
Oculus Quest, released in 2019, was the first to bridge this gap. It was wireless and priced at $ 399. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t in the four digits either. And 17 months later, Oculus released the Quest 2, an update that significantly improved the graphics (frame rate and resolution are both higher), weight (it’s a little over a pound), and price ($ 299). Obviously, as technology improves, so do fitness applications.
My only high-level complaint about Quest 2 doesn’t come from Oculus, but from parent company Facebook. With the second generation console, the social media company asked its virtual reality users to log in using a Facebook profile.
That probably won’t phase the site’s billions of active users, but I deleted my account a few years ago. Facebook found a way to force me back, and the strong arms mandate confirms my suspicions that it’s more about collecting my data than winning me back as a loyal customer.
Regardless, VR Fitness has officially landed, and I’d bet that goggles will soon be as common as treadmills.
Think Holodia, a company that has been developing VR training software since 2018. Originally, Holodia targeted gyms with virtual jungles and rivers that members could speed up using rowing machines, ellipticals, and exercise bikes. In January, Holodia launched a subscription-based program for the Quest 2, presumably to fuel the VR fitness trend for the home.
Users can run the Holofit program ($ 10.75 / month, less for longer memberships) on smart rowing machines or on bicycles and ellipticals with cadence sensors attached. But more significant, they can now also do it by crunching or jogging in place – no heavy equipment required.
That seems to give an indication of where VR fitness is headed. While it started out as a novelty, it can now serve as the centerpiece of your home gym. It costs less, takes up less space, and offers you playful elements and daily updates.
The truth is, I don’t always feel like exercising. But these days I always take a break from reality. It’s wonderful that VR can do both.
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