Virtual Reality Workouts Are Just What Your Fitness Rut Needs

Macaela MacKenzie
·6 min read

Nearly a year into the pandemic (2020 may be over but the need to wear a mask is not!), virtual reality workouts are starting to look intriguing. Gyms are still closed, group workouts are unadvisable, and the fantasy of sweating it out somewhere—anywhere—other than the yoga mat you’ve squeezed next to your bed is still far away from becoming reality. How will we ever get out of this workout rut?

The tech world thinks virtual workouts, like the kind you can access with a VR headset such as the Oculus Quest 2, could be the answer. For the VR uninitiated, it can be a little freaky at first. Putting on a set of goggles that block out the sights and sounds of the physical world around you and drop you into the middle of a forest, or intergalactic space station, or into a bird’s-eye view of anywhere accessible by Google Earth can be disorienting—but also intoxicating. At its best, the premise of VR wellness is simple: Jack into the VR matrix and burn calories with apps that feel more like games than grueling cardio cardio sessions. For many, however, virtual reality workouts sound more like something from a dystopian YA novel or C-list sci-fi film—squeeze in a virtual jog before grabbing your morning soylent. But in a year when our entire lives—our schools, our meetings, our happy hours, our weddings—have gone virtual, why not our workouts?

Should you try virtual reality workouts?

As a wellness editor who gets literally dozens of emails a day about the next product or app or supplement that is guaranteed to “revolutionize” the world of wellness forever, I’ve learned to be skeptical. I’m not alone—nearly half of people surveyed in a poll conducted by a AI development company MyPlanet in November were uncomfortable with the idea of virtual reality workouts. Women in particular were not into the idea of VR’s revolutionizing the wellness industry.

It’s perfectly fine to want to keep your workouts grounded in actual reality, but the truth is, even as my newsfeeds are filled with sparkly January motivation and calls to set healthy intentions for the new year, I have absolutely zero motivation to work out. The idea of one more self-guided cardio session or phone-screen yoga class makes me want to lie down and rewatch Bridgerton. So okay, bring on the sci-fi sweat.

<cite class="credit">JJ MILLER / Courtesy of Supernatural </cite>
JJ MILLER / Courtesy of Supernatural

In December, Oculus launched Oculus Move—an in-platform fitness tracker that measures your activity levels and calories burned while engaging in any VR app. Instead of getting your cardio courtesy of a YouTube workout, for example, you can get your recommended daily amount of activity by virtually rock climbing, playing intergalactic ping-pong, or racking up a new high score in Beat Saber. The “tracker” (which is really more of a simple calorie-counting dashboard) can help you meet daily movement goals by closing rings similar to those found on the Apple Watch.

It’s intriguing, but when Facebook (which produces Oculus VR headsets) sent me an Oculus Quest to try, I wasn’t expecting more than a fun distraction that might give my heart rate a slight bump. I was pleasantly surprised.

The VR Verdict

Strapping on a VR headset felt weirdly intuitive—we’ve been using tech to enhance our workouts for years, after all. And we are in an era of screens: Who hasn’t gotten intimately familiar with workout apps over the past 10 months? Judging by the skyrocketing sales of Peloton and The Mirror, we are all getting mighty comfortable with the idea of taking our workout cues from a virtual instructor beaming into our homes.

After playing around with a few apps, I landed on Supernatural—a dedicated VR workout app that launched last April. When you open the app, you’re transported to an epically beautiful landscape—the base of Mount Everest, Canyonlands in Utah, the top of a volcano—where you’re plopped onto a floating platform. You can choose a workout based on length, difficulty, music genre, or instructor. Their are meditations, stretching sessions meant to evoke the feeling of being physically in the room with your favorite teacher, and all-out cardio sprints.

The “workout” is fairly simple, but it manages to hit every major muscle group. When you begin a class, two bats appear in your hands courtesy of the handheld controllers—you strike floating targets using the bats and squat or lunge to fit into pop-up neon triangles. It’s kind of like a workout out of Tron. The targets move fast, and I was sweating after a few minutes, so focused on the game that I wasn’t thinking about anything else.

After a 30-minute session, I’d burned about 200 calories, according to the Oculus Move dashboard. But what impressed me the most was the data I cross-referenced with my own fitness tracker, a Whoop. In the half-hour VR session, I’d taken on as much cardiovascular strain as I would during an hour-long strength training workout at the gym, and I woke up sore the next day. This is certainly no match for running a 5K, but it’s a significant boost to an otherwise sedentary day.

There are downsides to a VR workout. Having a headset strapped to your face as you sweat is, I’ll be totally honest, pretty uncomfortable. And you do need a space big enough to move around a bit and swing your arms (tricky in tight apartment living) in order to really get into it. But the real value, for me, was the chance to try something different to shake me out of a pandemic-induced workout rut.

What I loved most about my virtual reality workouts was the ability to feel transported. There was no room for that mid-workout feeling of am-I-done-yet annoyance, no clock in the corner of the room to glance at, no Slack notifications popping up to rip me out of my flow state. For 30 whole minutes, the stressors of the past year didn’t exist—I found myself somewhere else entirely.

Our world shrank dramatically in early 2020—almost overnight we went from taking up space in offices, restaurants, workout studios, movie theaters, museums, bars, and public transportation to being confined in space to just a handful of rooms. Virtual reality is not the same as actually traveling to the base of Mount Everest, or even actually going to a workout class where a trainer is physically present in the room. But it is a bit like pressing your face to the glass of that reality. For now, I’ll happily take that.

Originally Appeared on Glamour