VR Health: Can My Digital Actuality Recreation Be a Exercise?
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.
What is 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.
What Science Says About Whether VR Games Count as a Workout
Research says yes, virtual reality games can be just as intense as other workouts.
In a paper published in Games for Health Journal in 2018, researchers put three virtual reality games (Audioshield, Thrill of the Fight, and Holopoint) to the test on 41 healthy men and women between ages 18 and 39.
Each participant played each game for 10 minutes while researchers measured their heart rate and oxygen consumption with VO2 max testing equipment (a face mask and tube system that’s worn during exercise to measure physical fitness and the number of calories burned).
The physical activity required for all three of the games met energy expenditure benchmarks for moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise, says study coauthor Jimmy Bagley, PhD, an associate professor of kinesiology and research director of the Strength and Conditioning Lab at San Francisco State University , where he studies virtual reality health and exercise. (Dr. Bagley is part of the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise partnership, for which he helped measure the calorie expenditure of hundreds of VR games, comparing each one to its equivalent in traditional exercise and rating them on the organization’s website.)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Brisk walking is an example of moderate-intensity exercise, while jogging or running is an example of vigorous-intensity exercise, per the CDC.
In Thrill of the Fight — a boxing game where players punch, lunge, and duck to dodge hits — participants burned an average of 9.74 to 15.32 calories per minute, which is on par with the calories burned while rowing.
“Some of the participants were working at 80 to 90 percent of their max heart rate. They were definitely sweating,” Bagley says.
In Holopoint, players are archers, shooting arrows at opponents while jumping, lunging, and squatting to escape attacks. Bagley says participants burned roughly 7.6 to 12.69 calories per minute, which is similar to the amount of calories you’d burn playing tennis in real life.
In the Games for Health Journal study, the team also found that people exercising in virtual reality often underestimate how much energy they are exerting. They rated jogging on a treadmill as “moderate” exercise, whereas playing a VR fitness game felt like a “light” workout to them.
Bagley suggests that this is because players are absorbed in the game, focusing on earning points or beating the boss to get to the next level.
A study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2019 compared two groups of adults doing biceps curls: 40 people did the exercises in a gym and another 40 people exercised with a VR headset, viewing a simulated room that was a virtual copy of the real -life gym. Both groups used 20 percent of the max weight they were able to lift, and they had to hold the biceps curls for as long as they could.
The data showed that the VR group reported a pain intensity that was 10 percent lower than their peers in the gym. They also had a lower heart rate, at three fewer beats per minute, and they were able to keep lifting for two minutes longer.
A review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2020 analyzed studies that had evaluated the effectiveness of VR exercise and concluded that VR workouts helped improve physical fitness, muscle strength, and balance.
Tim Donahey, an Ohio-based National Academy of Sports Medicine–certified personal trainer, turned to VR fitness in August 2016 to help him lose the 15 pounds he had gained when he became a father for the first time earlier that year. Chronicling his 50-day weight loss journey on Reddit, Donahey committed to one hour of VR exercise five days a week as his sole source of physical activity.
“I knew immediately what the benefits were going to be — every time I played, it got my heart rate up, I was sore afterwards, and I could feel the effects on my body,” he says.
Who Is VR Fitness Best For? Is There Anyone Who Shouldn’t Try It?
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.
And if you tend to struggle with motion sickness, dizziness, or vertigo, start with games with less movement, Bagley says.
So How Do I Get Started With VR Fitness?
Here are a few things to consider before getting started with VR fitness:
- There’s an initial investment. VR headsets come at a premium, with the Meta Quest 2 (previously the Oculus Quest 2) priced at $299, and the VIVE Pro priced at $599. Games are sold separately. Liteboxer VR has a range of free workouts, but you can also subscribe to new workouts for $18.99 a month. Games, such as Thrill of the Fight and Holopoint, are between $10 and $15.
- You may encounter some motion sickness. If you’re sensitive to motion sickness, it’s worth testing out VR fitness games at a local electronics store or a friend’s house before investing in them yourself, says Stanton. “Some games are high motion, and I wouldn’t recommend those for beginners,” he says. Others, like Fruit Ninja, may offer an easier entry point for people who are prone to motion sickness, Donahey says.
Here are some tips to get you set up to jump into a VR exercise routine:
- The first step is buying your VR headset. You can use your VR headset for more than just exercise, so consider what else you plan to do with it. Factors that might affect which one you choose are resolution, pixels, field of view, and price point. If you plan on using your VR headset for watching blockbuster movies and National Geographic documentaries, for instance, you may want to splurge on a model with great resolution. Overall, though, Stanton says the Meta Quest 2, at less than $300, will get the job done if you want to exercise and binge Netflix shows. Research the games you plan on playing, too, to make sure they’re available on the headset you intend to buy (not all gaming apps are compatible with all VR systems).
- Choose games you’ll have fun playing. “Virtual reality fitness is all about you being immersed in the game so it doesn’t feel like exercise,” Stanton says. With that in mind, test out various games and use free trials before making a purchase. Some games will have you playing sports, such as tennis, fencing, or boxing, while others are more like an adventure, in which you’ll be dodging and slicing orbs or fighting monsters.
- Start slow. It’s easy to get caught up in a VR fitness game because you’re fully focused on slaying that dragon or getting to the next level, but Sorensen suggests pacing yourself, especially during your first few workouts. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week. If you’re getting it via VR fitness, that could mean 30 minutes of game play five days a week. Just like you would when going to the gym, take rest days in between, especially if you’re feeling sore after a workout.