Immersive VR and exergaming are taking over the fitness industry

Exergaming: why gaming-inspired fitness and immersive VR workouts are taking over fitness in 2022

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If your idea of cardio is jumping around while playing Just Dance on Nintendo Switch, then you are most definitely onto something. Exergaming – active video gaming – is everywhere in 2022. Here’s what you need to know about the latest fitness trend that can take you out of this world (without leaving your living room).     

We can all agree that fitness should be fun. Sure, it needs to get hearts pumping and muscles firing, but a good workout that we’ll want to return to time and again will keep us motivated and entertained too. Kind of like a game, then?

No wonder leading fitness brands are leaning into ‘exergaming’ (physical exercise with a gaming component). Think Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure – and then some. 

Established fitness brands like Les Mills are testing the waters with VR games, most of which you can access with an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset (to further underscore VR’s increasingly important role in exercise, you just need to read Oculus’ latest tagline: ‘Cardio can be fun in VR’).

Meditating on Mars with Lizzo? Cycling through EDM beats in a Guitar Hero-style animated world? Crushing flying objects with your jab-hook punch combo? The possibilities are pretty extraordinary, and devotees of exergaming will tell you the benefits (and the sweat) are very real. 

Exergaming: a way to keep home workouts motivating?

Gyms may be open again, but there’s no question that the pandemic has changed how we exercise for good.

Home fitness is still the preferred option for many, thanks to its flexibility and ability to keep us connected to each other even when we’re home alone. Business Insider reported that home fitness equipment sales between January and November 2021, excluding Peloton, were worth $3.3 billion (£2.5bn), according to the NPD Group, which accounts for 97% growth compared to the same period in 2019.

Introducing a gaming component with immersive music, animations and graphics is the next logical step in making these workouts even more compelling. 

Les Mills VR
Brands like Les Mills have released their own VR experience, which can be accessed on the Oculus headsets.

Peloton’s newest gamified rides, Lanebreak, launched in February 2022 and transform a user’s screen into a Guitar Hero-style animation. Players control a virtual wheel, switch lanes and enjoy speed and resistance pushes, all while listening to David Bowie or David Guetta and racking up thousands of points.

Designed to complement instructor-led classes on the Bike/Bike+, the overwhelmingly positive comments on the Peloton UK Facebook group from female riders suggest these classes are already a hit:  “I’m loving it, it’s really pushing me to do more” and “So much fun! Got an epic output without realising!” are just a few.

According to Dr Josephine Perry, sports psychologist and author of The Ten Pillars Of Success, e-cycling using platforms like the gamified Zwift, which allows riders to race each other, follow training plans and track their progress, really took off during the pandemic, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see more of these types of workouts entering the mainstream. 

“To make exercise really sticky and to make people really motivated to do it, you need three pillars in place,” Dr Perry tells Stylist.

“You need to feel like you belong. You need mastery to feel like you’re good at it. And you need some autonomy, that you’re doing it because you’ve chosen to.”

Exergaming seems to tick every box, connecting us with a larger community, introducing simple targets we can improve at and, crucially, providing enjoyment. Exergaming can also reintroduce fitness to those feeling daunted about getting back into the gym, says Dr Perry.

“This is a much more psychologically safe way to get into exercise. Every time we try something new and we figure out we were OK with it, it gives us more motivation, that feeling of confidence. We might find we really love something.” 

The health and fitness benefits of exergaming

Fitness equipment with built-in immersive technology is something we’re seeing more of.

Capti is a newly launched smartbike powered by Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, while Icaros’ fitness machines, designed to support strength training, feature built-in virtual reality experiences.

London’s Lanserhof gym and wellness clinic at The Arts Club has an Icaros 3D core trainer. Instead of boring planks, the gym goer becomes a glider pilot, flying through hoops and fighting aliens in VR.

“VR-based training now has a really solid base of scientific testing. This testing tells us that being in VR creates a better brain-to-muscle (neuromuscular) link, which can help for not only a more effective workout but also helps a member become more bodily aware (which can help increase performance in other exercises),” explains Lanserhof trainer Amanda Law, who likes how the Icaros provides instant feedback on her progress. It’s popular with female members at Lanserhof because of the social component, which allows for some friendly competition between friends.

Icaros - Lanserhof at The Arts Club
Get fit by becoming glider pilot, flying through hoops and fighting aliens with the Icaros 3D core trainer.

Exergaming has been shown to help improve cognitive and physical function in those with mild dementia as well as mobility and balance in older adults (although more extensive research needs to be carried out in these fields for more conclusive findings).

Researchers have also found exergaming to be a useful motivating tool in persuading people to exercise harder physiologically, while feeling better overall in terms of their attitude towards working out.

Boost exercise motivation by distracting yourself with games

There’s no question that the “fun” aspect of these immersive workouts is a huge part of their appeal, especially since many don’t even necessarily feel like exercise when you’re mid-game, according to Kelly Cosentino, director of fitness at FitXR, a pioneering brand in the fitness-gaming space with “studios” for boxing, HIIT and dance workouts. Coaches instruct you during classes, and there’s a multiplayer feature that allows players to compete against – and chat – with up to seven people during a session.

FitXR is one of several exergames you can do at home using a VR headset, like the Oculus Quest 2, which can be connected to a gaming PC or used as a standalone.

As they’ve become more ubiquitous, these headsets have dramatically dropped in price, and you can now pick one up for £300 – not cheap exactly, but a snip of the cost of a larger piece of smart home fitness equipment, which won’t give you the added bonus of putting you front-row at an immersive concert or letting you play Among Us with pals any time you like.

“A lot of women have adopted this as a second person in the household that also uses the Oculus. People are now purchasing it with the intent of exercise,” Cosentino says.

Unlike a class where people are counting down the minutes until it’s over, games like FitXR leave people pushing harder and wanting more.

“Our users tend to stack workouts. They want to stay in the game longer. Breaking fitness into chunks is a very approachable way of going about fitness. When you have this immersive thing, it makes you want to stay. 

Peloton's Lanebreak
Peloton has gone from the basic bike workout to a VR experience that could have you pedalling faster and longer than ever.

“You also see that you can fit it in at any time of the day – you can get a great sweat in 10 minutes and you can feel great about that. VR allows people to get more involved,” says Cosentino.

This inclusivity extends beyond having workouts which feel bespoke to your schedule and is central to the FitXR experience. Users will find a selection of seated workouts and can take classes with professional disabled athlete Zion Clark, the newest coach on their roster.

So, who exactly is exergaming?

If you’re after immersive, rhythm-based fitness gaming experiences which only require a VR headset, there are plenty to choose from these days, like Supernatural, which lets you meditate in Machu Picchu or get your cardio fix on Mars; Liteboxer VR, which puts you in a virtual ring; and Holofit, which turns your rowing or elliptical machine into a VR game to beat.

No surprise that gamers have been some of the earliest adopters of VR exergames. Take 28-year-old, Colorado-based Rose, who streams as XoRoseGold and has been playing Beat Saber, an immersive VR game where players slash at flying music beats, since 2019.

Rose plays obsessively because she loves jamming to the music, but getting a workout in without even trying is an added bonus.

“When I first started playing, I’d be sore in all kinds of places like my traps, lats, shoulders, biceps. My shoulders and forearms are hard as rocks now,” she says, pointing out that Beat Saber is also a cardio workout.

“I like to move around and dance a lot when I play, and super-fast or challenging maps will get my heart rate up to 190+, which is awesome HIIT cardio,” she says.

Emma Phillips, an events manager in the leisure centre space, has been a fan of Les Mills workouts for years and decided to try Bodycombat VR, which combines boxing, karate and muay thai knee strike moves and launched in February 2022, after having a baby.

“What I noticed from the get-go is that it doesn’t even seem like you’re truly just there to workout; it is just so immersive and transporting to be in the world they have created. The sessions are quick, so it’s super easy to pick up and play when I put the little one down for a nap and a great way to keep active from home,” she explains.

Phillips sees metaverse workouts as an additional way to fit exercise in around gym sessions, which is how Les Mills program director and co-creator of the Bodycombat VR app Rachael Newsham envisages the workout, too.

“People have less and less time to prioritise activity, but putting the headset on for 20 minutes at lunch and/or the evening equates to a surprising level of activity,” she says.

Fans of the live Bodycombat experience will notice that the gamified version might feel a bit different – and not just because they can see the targets they’re striking flying at them and receive instant feedback on their accuracy to improve their performance.

Movements are more limited in the VR version of the game; this is because of strict metaverse movement restrictions to ensure the safety of these games for players. 

Are there any downsides to taking fitness into the metaverse?

VR headsets can take some getting used to for newbies, who should watch out for any neck pains and take it slow to make sure they don’t get motion sickness from the graphics.

Rapid movements while wearing the headset can also lead to injuries (as can tripping over objects or accidentally kicking something you can’t see), and the American Academy of Ophthalmology warns that spending too much time wearing a headset can lead to eye strain.

As VR technology evolves, headsets will get lighter and you won’t need to completely escape your world (unless you want to). But, as with everything, exergaming can be great… in moderation.

Dr Perry reminds users to remember the benefits of “blue-green exercise”, which underscores why exercising in nature, when we can see water or trees, is especially good for us mentally.

“If you’re doing your exercise indoors as well as everything else in your life, you miss out on that,” she says. 

For more fitness stories, check out the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: brands’ own

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