Around the time Aaron Stanton got into virtual reality, he started playing the game “Audioshield” — and soon noticed he’d logged 120 hours on the pursuit.
Stanton was so inspired that, in 2017, he founded the San Francisco-based Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise to study the health impact of virtual and augmented reality. The institute tests and rates VR games by, for example, checking players’ oxygen consumption and indicates how many calories they can reasonably expect to burn per minute of activity. Metrics aside, Stanton notes that the biggest predictor of someone’s fitness success is how much they enjoy it. “VR is as close as I can think of to making the exercise candy to somebody like me,” who struggles to stick with traditional exercise, he says.
Virtual reality is more accessible than ever, even to those who don’t consider themselves particularly tech-savvy — and its potential as a fitness game changer is increasingly clear. Pull on a VR headset, like the Oculus Quest 2, Valve Index or HTC Vive, and you’ll be transported far beyond the four walls you’ve been staring at: to the moon, a dance club, the mountains, a beach or a desert. Picture doing squats on Mars, or throwing punches in a lifelike arena as thousands of people cheer you on.
One of the great benefits of VR is that it breaks down the barriers many people have to working out, says Leanne Pedante, head of fitness for the app Supernatural. You can do it at home, rather than feeling like you’re on display at the gym; you can work one-on-one with an enthusiastic coach who’s making eye contact; and, well, it’s super fun. “Virtual reality provides this really unique experience where you get to step into whatever version of yourself feels the most real to you,” Pedante says. “When you walk into a gym, you’re surrounded by mirrors and other people, and that brings a lot of self-consciousness or ideas about whether you are or aren’t or can or can’t be an athlete. In virtual reality, the immersive experience — paired with this really supportive community — allows people to shed that old narrative and show up as a superstar athlete who’s smashing targets.”
Perhaps the biggest downside to VR fitness is its cost: An Oculus Quest 2 will set you back at least $299, and some apps have monthly subscription fees that add up quickly. Plus, given that the technology is still in a fairly early stage, researchers aren’t clear on potential side effects. VR has been linked to dizziness, eye fatigue, disorientation and nausea in some users, for example.
If you’re new to VR, here’s a look at four of the best apps to work out your body and mind:
Supernatural — recently acquired by Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook — is the gold standard for VR fitness. The subscription-based service (about $19 per month) produces new workouts every day, led by virtual trainers who feel more like personal cheerleaders. You can choose among low-, medium- or high-intensity workouts that last from 10 minutes to an hour.
So how does it work? “You pull on a pair of magical goggles, and all of a sudden you’re no longer standing in your apartment,” Pedante says. “You’re on the Great Wall of China, or a beach in France, and there’s birds singing above you and water moving, and when you turn your head, a coach appears in front of you and leads you through a warm-up, and talks to you about what to expect in the workout.”
Then you start moving. During a “Flow” workout, you’ll lunge, squat and burn lots of calories while smashing flying targets with a virtual bat, as a song like the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” blasts in your ears. If you opt for a boxing workout, which Supernatural launched in late October, you’ll need to duck, block and throw punches, maybe on the moon or surrounded by the Egyptian pyramids. “You end up doing a choreographed shadowboxing workout,” Pedante says. “Before you know it, you’re covered in sweat, but you’re simply not paying attention to how hard you’re exerting yourself.”
Supernatural also offers stretch sessions and guided meditations, and users can track their workout history and stats via a smartphone app.
Forget everything you think you know about meditating, especially if it involves sitting serenely on the beach. This is meditation 2.0, with a psychedelic spin. Tripp is full of “weird” alternate realities designed with a healing mind-set, says CEO and co-founder Nanea Reeves, who developed the app after realizing that VR felt like a “mental retreat.”
Tripp is, well, trippy. Picture soaring through a kaleidoscope of pulsating flowers, swirling stardust, fluorescent reefs and a playground of magical mushrooms. Each mood-altering experience lasts six to 35 minutes and relies on psychedelic visuals and sound frequencies, paired with breathing exercises that include animations of your breath. There are mindfulness journeys designed to enhance focus and bring you into a present state of awareness, and others that promote calm. “You can pick and choose your own adventure,” Reeves says. “You almost feel like you’re in a cosmic flotation tank. Even though you’re sitting in your living room in your favorite chair, you feel like you’re floating in space.”
The app (which costs $4.99 per month) is updated with new worldscapes every day, and Reeves recommends consistent use. “Our goal is not to replace meditation,” she says. “I have a deep meditation practice, but we do find that for those people who struggle with it, VR can be a wonderful tool to get you grounded, and to get you to reflect on things that might help you deepen your experience.”
“The Thrill of the Fight” is a room-scale boxing game in which you square off against challengers who get tougher and faster over time. It’s “hyper-realistic,” says Anna Kalinsky, a producer with Sealost Interactive, which makes the game. “Most of what you do is combat — throwing punches, dodging, moving the same way that you would if you were boxing face-to-face with another person.” You’ll even get to see the visual damage you inflict; bruises and cuts will appear on your competitor’s face.
Boxing provides an excellent cardio workout: The Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise estimates that someone who weighs about 130 pounds will burn around 10 to 15 calories per minute. It’s also mental fitness, given the timing and skill required to land each blow. “It’s a pretty aggressive workout,” Kalinsky says, noting that some enthusiasts box for an hour or more at a time.
But anyone, regardless of experience level, can give the game (which costs $9.99) a try. “You don’t need to be a pro boxer. You don’t even really need to know how to box, though if you do, that’s definitely an advantage,” Kalinsky says. Checking out a few YouTube videos on how to throw a punch or stand properly can be helpful, she advises.
If you’ve pulled out every excuse you can think of not to hop on your treadmill or exercise bike, Shahin Lauritzen sees you. Many people “start getting bored before they even start doing it,” he says. “Or they start thinking about how painful it is.”
Lauritzen is the CEO and founder of Holodia, the company behind Holofit, a VR app that aims to make working out less of a chore. If you have cardio equipment at home, like a rowing machine, bike or elliptical, you can pull on a headset and find yourself rowing the Lac d’Aiguebelette in France or cycling through the Grand Sablon Desert. The app (which costs $10.75 per month) offers more than a dozen virtual environments, including an underwater scene, a canyon, San Francisco and Paris.
“You go on a journey,” Lauritzen says. “You become part of the storytelling, and people are very motivated by that. They find it fun, and when they can see over time that it supports the achievement of their goals, they come back and use it very often.”
Even if you don’t have at-home cardio equipment, you can still use Holofit. Find out how much you’ll sweat while taking a run through Antarctica, for example, by jogging in place, or simulate skiing by squatting and swinging your arms backward. All these freestyle exercises work your core, arms, shoulders, back, glutes and legs. Sign into the multiplayer version, and you can compete against other players from around the world.