A VR Gaming Headset Revolutionized Our Workouts
How my wife’s Christmas wish turned this skeptic into a VR exercising addict
Apart from watching instructional YouTube videos, playing New York Times word games on our phones and streaming a show over spotty WiFi in the evening, my wife and I are not big techies. That's why I was surprised when she hinted that she'd like a virtual reality (VR) headset for Christmas.
This thing was made for everyone.
"I've heard it's really good exercise," she said. "Mmmm hmmm," I replied skeptically, but the message had been received, and I surprised her with one under the tree.
Prior to that, I thought that video games — especially the VR sort — were something an adult leaves behind in their twenties, or, surely, their thirties. The moment I strapped on that headset, though, it was clear to me that this thing was made for everyone.
A Whole Other World
The makers of VR headsets have smartly included free games and apps that help new users familiarize themselves with handset controls, body movements, and the immersive experience as a whole. One of these games was my first introduction to VR, and I was blown away.
You may find yourself walking among dinosaurs.
If you're new to VR technology, then getting to know your device inside an incredibly detailed make-believe world you could never have imagined is a first step I highly recommend.
Depending on which brand and model of headset you buy, you may find yourself walking among dinosaurs, meditating in a psychedelic 3D field of color and sound, or shooting space puffins that have landed in your living room through a hole in your ceiling. Rather than making you feel as though any of this actually taking place in the real world, today's VR headsets do a very convincing job of bringing you into their world.
A Sweaty, Heart-Pumping, Bebopping World
As my wife correctly guessed, the prospect of exercising in VR was what really piqued my interest. Once I'd gotten familiar with the headset and hand controls, I created the 6.5' x 6.5' virtual "safe space" required by most games in one of our rooms and then I was ready to work out.
Depending on the brand and model of device, there are dozens to hundreds of active VR games, apps and experiences that can be downloaded or streamed via WiFi. On the recommendation of family members, we started with a low-cost boxing game.
The first time I played it, I found myself breathless and sweaty inside of ten minutes. I took a break, but an hour later, was back in the ring, swinging wildly and gasping for air.
I soon found myself logging marathon workout sessions 60, 70, even 90 minutes long.
I had previously been exercising regularly, but this was the hardest I had worked out since training for a series of obstacle course races in my mid-forties. Not only was it an incredible workout, I found it addictive. That first week, I played the boxing game two or three times a day, until one day I overextended on a punch (something the game's cautionary statement warned me not to do) and injured my elbow.
I sulked for the next couple of days as I rested my elbow but eventually found a free streaming dancing game that didn't aggravate it. Again, I was smitten, and although my heart rate didn't get into the red zone with this one, that just meant I could play longer. I soon found myself logging marathon workout sessions 60, 70, even 90 minutes long.
My wife was the same way. "You know I hate cardio," she panted one day that first week, "but this is awesome!" A month in, we're both still jockeying for time with the headset every day.
Looking at my fitness tracker stats over the first 30 days of using the VR headset, my average workout time per week increased nearly 50%, and the average intensity of those workouts was much higher. I feel fitter than before, and am noticing some muscle definition I haven't seen in years.
Research Backs the Benefits
My wife and I aren't the only ones reaping the benefits of VR exercise. A 2020 systematic review found that VR exercise was as effective, if not more so, than traditional exercise across a number of physiological, rehabilitative and even psychological outcomes.
VR games and apps are also well-suited to more specialized training. A 2023 meta-analysis published in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics found it to be more effective than conventional exercise at improving balance and preventing falls in older adults.
For me, the "fun factor" is the biggest advantage of VR exercise.
For me, the "fun factor" is the biggest advantage of VR exercise. It's well-established in exercise science that if an activity is enjoyable, you're more likely to stick with it, and the same is true for perceived exertion: if something doesn't seem as hard, you'll probably do it for longer and/or more often.
In a 2022 study, researchers at San Francisco State University, San Francisco, found that subjects' actual exertion during exercise with a VR headset was much higher than their perceived exertion. The researchers also asked participants to rank the enjoyability of each exercise session, and were surprised to find that the most intense games were rated as the most enjoyable.
Player Beware: The Risks and Cons of VR Gaming
Working out harder and longer can have great physical and mental benefits, but it also comes with risks. As a former fitness professional and lifelong exerciser, I know my body's limits. I feel okay pushing my heart rate to near-maximum during some of my workouts, but this would be really dangerous for a large segment of the population. As with any exercise program, you should talk with your health care provider before you begin a VR workout regimen, and then start slowly and progress incrementally.
All of my exercise experience didn't protect me from tweaking my elbow (and later pulling a rib muscle playing the same boxing game). So, if like me, you tend to get caught up in the competitive heat of the moment, the risk for injury is real.
No matter your age, and whatever your thoughts on VR gaming have been up to now, I encourage you to give it a try.
If you're not a workout nut, then a VR headset could actually increase your sedentary time. I discovered this pitfall one evening when I "just wanted to check out" an online escape room type of game, and emerged goggle-eyed and woozy two hours later.
Finally, none of this stuff is cheap. Compared to a monthly gym membership or home-gym set-up, VR exercise might still be a little more cost-effective, but only if you're choosey about which games you purchase. Some have fairly hefty one-time price tags, and others require a monthly subscription.
I splurged on the latest iteration of headset available at the time, and my wife's Christmas morning reaction convinced me that was a good thing. So far, we've only spent around $30 total on games, and between that and the free streaming ones, we feel enormously entertained.
As spring brings warmer temperatures and dry ground, I know I'll get most of my exercise working and walking outside, but with months of winter still ahead, I can't imagine going back to my boring old basement workouts.
No matter your age, and whatever your thoughts on VR gaming have been up to now, I encourage you to give it a try. Test out a friend's device before you buy one if you're not sure. I bet you'll be glad you did.