Can video games be a workout? Yes, experts say, and virtual reality (VR) technology is ushering in a whole new way to exercise.
Pop on a VR headset, load up the right game, and suddenly you’re in sparring in a boxing ring or skiing in the Swiss Alps, says Aaron Stanton, founder and director of the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise, an independent research organization launched in 2017 to study the effects of virtual and augmented reality technology on fitness. (Since its founding, the organization has partnered with San Francisco State University and the virtual reality platform VIVE.)
VR exercise isn’t different from other types of aerobic exercise, according to Stanton. You’re getting your heart rate up, working up a sweat, and burning calories — but it’s not as monotonous as logging miles on a treadmill.
“The best exercise is the one with the highest amount of painless minutes,” Stanton says. You’re going to keep doing the workouts that don’t feel like a chore and instead feel like something you actually enjoy, he says. “That is where VR comes in. It’s fun, so you forget you’re even exercising.”
Here’s more about what the research says, as well as everything you need to know to get started with VR fitness.
Virtual reality is a computer-simulated environment; hardware (a VR headset) allows users to navigate and interact with the simulation. VR can be used for many purposes, such as medical care and research, training, entertainment, and yes, fitness.
With VR fitness, you use hardware (the VR headset) and software (a collection of games) to immerse yourself in virtual surroundings, explains Mathias Sorensen, an American College of Sports Medicine–certified personal trainer and curriculum manager at the American Fitness and Nutrition Academy. Sorensen, an avid gamer, says he started using VR fitness games in 2015.
In a video game, you control your player or character in the game with a handheld controller. In VR fitness, you control your player or character by moving your body. That means you might be up on your feet hopping for several seconds or minutes as you jump over laser beams, or doing a few squats and side lunges as you ride a VR roller coaster, or swinging your arms intensely as you use a sword to fight a monster, Sorensen says.
“You’d be surprised at how quickly your heart rate jumps up when you’re doing a minute of jumping in a game,” Sorensen says. Depending on the game and how much you’re moving, he says, the energy expenditure can be similar to other types of cardio you might do in a more traditional workout — or even more intense.
While some VR games are purely for entertainment (though you may burn some calories or work up a sweat while playing them because you are moving), others are made specifically for working out, says Jeff Morin, CEO and cofounder of Liteboxer VR, which dubs itself a “fitness-first” boxing game.
Personal trainers designed the library of workouts in Liteboxer VR, for example, with new exercises added daily, Morin says. Workouts feature music from artists such as Machine Gun Kelly and Lady Gaga, and a coach instructs users about proper form.
The workouts in Liteboxer VR are similar to those in a workout video or app, except now you’re fully immersed in the simulation. So, rather than looking at the boxing ring, you feel like you’re actually in it, for example.
Liteboxer VR tracks players’ timing, accuracy, and velocity of punches, allowing them to improve upon their personal best. They can even go head-to-head with fellow players in sparring matches. On average, players burn about 300 calories per 30 minutes.
VR workouts can be great for anyone who enjoys gamified workouts or virtual workout classes. They can be ideal for people who aren’t currently physically active (particularly if they find the specific VR game or program they’re using more enjoyable than a traditional workout) or for regular gym goers who want to supplement their workout routine, Donahey says.
“It’s a great way for people who hate exercise to get moving and burn some calories while they play,” he says.
Be conscious of your mobility and fitness levels, though. If you have a medical condition or injury that may limit your ability to exercise safely, talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise program. In that same vein, if you aren’t physically fit, test the waters with the “easy” setting on whatever game you play, so that you don’t overstrain your body, Bagley says. (You still run the risk of real-life overuse injuries when working out with VR, just as you would with other sports or activities.)
Bagley notes that people who aren’t necessarily tech-savvy may need a hand with setting up their headset and game.
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