During the harshest months of Minnesota’s long, dark winters, when it takes only a few moments for your eyes to start watering and your cheeks to begin stinging, I give up my outdoor hobbies and get creative about exercising indoors. Sometimes that means hopping on a stationary bike. But more and more I find myself turning to an entirely different landscape: virtual reality.
Pulling a ski-mask-like VR headset over your eyes drops you into a virtual world where you can watch movies, play games, and, yes, exercise. Sensors track the location of your hands, body, and head while you smash opponents as Adonis Creed in Creed: Rise to Glory. Other apps let you dance, bike, do yoga, and meditate.
On sites like Reddit, praise abounds on the mental and physical benefits of exercising in virtual reality, often from people who had trouble making other exercise habits last. One of those VR enthusiasts, Robert Long of Maryland, said he used VR games to improve his health and to lose more than 100 pounds, after years of managing pain resulting from two car accidents. There are many factors that contribute to weight loss, but Long’s before and after pictures have generated discussions about health in forums that are usually dedicated to sedentary entertainment.
“Most people never stick to a workout, because it’s not fun, and you are well aware it’s a workout,” says Long. “But VR has the ability to trick the mind into thinking it's a game and not exercise.”
Marialice Kern, chair of the Department of Kinesiology at San Francisco State University, describes VR as an alternative form of exercise. SFSU’s wellness center offers VR fitness classes three times a week, alongside more traditional recreation options like intramural sports and a climbing wall.
“There are certain people who don’t like to exercise, whether that’s hiking or biking. But they love to play video games,” Kern says. “Why not get both?”
While you might remember getting sweaty hopping around a Dance Dance Revolution pad or hula hooping in Wii Fit, a VR headset’s ability to block out the real world makes it even easier to get lost in the flow of exercise disguised as a game. Virtual reality is still niche, but a growing crop of VR games with a fitness element could inspire people to pick up a headset for the first time. Here’s what to know before you get started.
Whether you want to start exercising at home or you’re looking to augment an existing workout routine with aerobic activity, consider getting a virtual reality headset. As a tech reviewer, I’ve tested dozens of VR headsets and think the $400 Oculus Quest is the first one that could have mass appeal. It costs about the same as a cheaper stationary bike or treadmill.
I like the Quest for workouts because it’s powerful enough for most active games and also cordless, so you won’t trip on any cables. I recommend trying one before buying so that it doesn’t wind up with other abandoned workout gear. Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, publishes a page where you can search for local demo spots. Once you bring the headset home, don’t forget to clear furniture and other obstacles out of the way. You’re going to need at least a few feet of space in every direction.
Long and I share the same obsession: a game called Beat Saber, which tasks you with swinging lightsabers through a series of blocks that are flying through the air. Usually set to electronic music, the levels have the same frenetic, beat-centered activity of the classic console games Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero. The first time I played, it took only a few songs of slashing and ducking before I realized I was sweating—a lot.
Kern’s lab measures how much energy people expend playing VR games, for the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise. The institute likens working out with Beat Saber to playing tennis, and it estimates that players burn 6 to 8 calories per minute. Boxing games, which involve lots of quick jabs and hops, dominate the top categories. They usually burn between 6 and 10 calories a minute.
To pick your first game, find a game description that appeals to you and then check its activity level on the VR Institute’s website. Games that let you play through (and repeat) short levels give you more control over your level and length of activity. I find that whatever game you choose, the key is to commit. It’s easy to pass Beat Saber levels by moving as little as possible. But if you commit to dramatic lightsaber swings and leaping around the room to avoid objects instead of simply leaning, you’ll see faster results (and higher scores).
While boxing games are one of the fastest ways to burn calories, I still turn to Beat Saber for a quick workout. Creed: Rise to Glory just doesn’t hold my attention the way slicing and dicing Beat Saber blocks does.
Matthew Farrow, a health researcher at the University of Bath in the UK, conducted one of several studies that show enjoyment and intensity of exercise increase when someone is playing a game in VR. The game used in Farrow’s study challenged players to cycle along a road while avoiding trucks and police cars. The game also placed a “ghost” version of the player in the game that indicated their previous performance, allowing them to race against themselves. The study found that players worked 9 percent harder, without their motivation decreasing.
“People need to remember to try and make their exercise fun and not a daily chore,” Farrow says. “This is one of the reasons why using virtual-reality games to increase exercise enjoyment is so effective. Games also offer the opportunity to set, monitor, and achieve exercise goals, which helps maintain exercise motivation.”
If you’re just starting to get moving, the key is to pick an exercise that can become a routine. Worry less about how many calories you are burning per minute and more about what you enjoy enough to keep doing.
If you’re serious about getting a full workout in VR, a few accessories can help. Aaron Garcia, an American College of Sports Medicine–certified trainer and coach based in the Los Angeles area, says a fitness tracker (Wirecutter has a few recommendations) can help ensure that you’re increasing your heart rate enough to get an effective workout. It will also give you a more reliable calorie count; Kern noted that her lab sometimes finds the built-in calorie trackers in VR games to be inaccurate.
Additionally, a weight vest or ankle weights can make VR workouts more challenging and introduce a weight-training element. Garcia recommends treating VR as just one element in a well-rounded workout regimen. Pilates, yoga, and weight training are all complementary to VR. Many of his clients join him for weight-lifting training several times a week, and then they exercise on their own at home with tools like VR.
I recommend one more accessory: disposable masks. The VR headset I use has a foam face pad, and it quickly becomes soaked with sweat. It’s gross, especially considering how many friends and co-workers borrow my headset each month. A hygienic mask cuts down on the ick factor dramatically.
Garcia emphasized that no matter how you choose to exercise, you should listen to your body. If you’re sore, stop. Don’t push through an activity to the point of injury just because you’re having fun.
“I think VR is going to be awesome,” Garcia says. “For people who are sedentary, just to start doing something is so awesome. It just depends on how far you want to go with it.”