Virtual reality fitness programs now offer high-octane, fat-burning, muscle-toning and flexing, whole-body exercise routines. Picture: LIGHTFIELDSTUDIOS/123RF
Virtual reality fitness programs now offer high-octane, fat-burning, muscle-toning and flexing, whole-body exercise routines. Picture: LIGHTFIELDSTUDIOS/123RF

If boredom and painful hard labour spring to mind every time you think of exercise, then virtual reality (VR) “immersive fitness” is for you. It’s one of the biggest global exercise trends for 2019 and beyond.

As the technology evolves and develops, VR has moved seamlessly beyond the worlds of video gaming and entertainment into the realms of health and fitness. There’s also science to back up claims of benefits.

VR fitness games put the fun and enjoyment back into exercise, say the experts. And, of course, the more you enjoy a form of exercise, the more likely you are to keep it up.

VR also helps to distract your mind from how hard the workout may be.

Top-end VR is relatively new to the fitness world in SA, says Shehnaaz Bhabha, a biokineticist at the Centre of Advanced Medicine in Johannesburg, but is catching on quickly as it has done across the globe.

International trends show that VR fitness games can be industry game changers rather than gimmicks as some critics predicted, says Bhabha.

“Fitness influencers and trainers have become millionaires with their games and apps,” she says.

South Africans could do with a VR boost to health and fitness levels if rising incidences of obesity, type 2 diabetes and increasingly sedentary living and working are anything to go by.

Bhabha’s practice conducts fitness assessments for medical schemes. She says the majority of members test “below average for their age and gender”.

The experts hail VR fitness technology as a “completely new paradigm that will bring new benefits and capabilities that make all the difference”. They say that there is a big difference between the latest technology and early-generation Wii and Xbox fitness programs — you mention them in the same breath to VR aficionados at your peril.

It all comes down to being inside the VR game, compared with watching it on a screen. In effect, they say, VR works its fitness magic by “playing tricks on the brain in fundamental ways that other experiences simply cannot match”.

VR fitness programs now offer high-octane, fat-burning, muscle-toning and flexing, whole-body exercise routines varying from mild, to moderate and heart-pumping intensity.

Some gyms classes pair treadmills and spinning classes with high-tech VR headsets that improve health by making aerobic, cardiovascular workouts more enjoyable. These devices transport users into virtual worlds where they can race against others or simply enjoy the benefits of exercising while immersed in virtual natural environments.

Top of US-based VR Fitness Insider’s list of 15 best whole-body workouts is Box VR. It’s a wannabe pugilist’s delight. It gives all the cardio-aerobic benefits of doing a range of different punches and ducking and weaving to the beat, without the risk of black eyes, smashed cheekbones or head injury from a knock-out punch.

Second on that list is the game that hooked me instantly: Beat Saber, known as a “Jedi Samurai rhythm game”. It will have you moving, dancing, ducking and dodging obstacles to the music as you slash cubes with your virtual laser saber.

VR Fitness Insider claims that Beat Saber gives as good a workout as a strenuous game of tennis — if you play well at a high-enough intensity level for long enough.

One sign of longevity of VR Fitness is the founding of Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise based in the US in early 2017. Its mission statement is to “use cutting-edge laboratory equipment to improve understanding of the calorie impact of VR experiences on the human body”. And to explore gaming and health from the perspective of different health disciplines.  

Bhabha is a big fan of VF fitness games as these can make workouts more efficient and don’t require fancy gym equipment. The initial outlay can be steep but VR fitness can be more affordable than paying for personal trainer sessions.

VR fitness is also more accessible and convenient, as you can train when and where it suits you, she says.

She believes that the best age range is between 18 and 40. Younger children should not be left to do them unsupervised. Internationally, though, many VR fitness fanatics are well over 40.

Injury risk is high, says Bhabha, as there is no form correction with supervision. 

“A VR fitness programme can exacerbate existing muscle imbalances as they are not tailor-made for your body or goals. The risk grows if you don’t take into account your age and medical history.”

VR games can end up expensive if you don’t use them. Intrinsic motivation is a huge factor in the success of any fitness training regimen, says Bhabha.

“You have to be disciplined and self-motivated to train on your own.”

It’s imperative to monitor progress by having a complete assessment before embarking on a fitness programme, she says. That should include a body composition test, BMI (body mass index), blood pressure and full posture and functional movement screening to identify possible muscle imbalances and analyse movements to prevent injury.

“Reassessment helps to  keep you focused on your goals,” she says.

And when it comes to reaching those goals, VR fitness games can prove 19th century US essayist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s famous words: “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be searching for it.”