Written by Kajal Iyer
The wise Elle Woods once said, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” A primary motivation to exercise these days seems to be - to be happy - happy enough to get through another zoom session, another PTA meeting, another back breaking chore. Of course, it helps that one loses weight and looks and feels better overall. But all that comes only after a few months of sticking to the regime and while Elle Woods talked of the thing that comes after the exercise, she forgot to mention the thing that may help keep you exercising until the release of endorphins and that my friends, is dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that regulates the reward system in the brain, keeping a person hooked.
Dopamine is what gets released when your partner hugs you. It is also what gets released when you up level in your favorite video or virtual reality game. Remember that time when you moaned you had no time to exercise, but spent 2 hours clearing 20 levels of Candy Crush? That’s what we are talking about. So how does this relate to your fitness regime?
The pandemic shut down a lot of gyms and with it the possibility of socializing and motivating oneself with the help of trainers and gym buddies. The focus shifted to home workouts and that can sometimes get boring quick. It was this space that the Virtual Reality Fitness apps entered. Speaking to Kevin Roose of The New York Times, Chris Milk, Chief Executive Officer of Within, the company that developed Supernatural, one of the VR fitness apps that did very well in the pandemic said, “The fundamental flaw of most fitness systems is that, at your core, you’re doing something that is not fun, whether it’s pedalling on a stationary bike or running on a treadmill,” he said. “We use the tool of virtual reality to transport you beyond the walls of your apartment and give you an activity that is intrinsically fun to do.” Supernatural is game that makes its players beat orbs with a stick-like object while jumping, squatting and moving to music.
The workout is more intense with BlackBox VR which markets its workout game as a science backed HIIT and resistance training with a cable pulley provided with the set. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could play an exciting video game and level up your own body instead of just your on-screen characters?” advertises the BlackBox VR website.
In Poocho's study on the impact of gaming in the virtual reality world on how we socialize, VR users said that while they considered fitness to be important, they weren’t all too keen on going to the gym. Active fitness-based games like boxing, rock climbing and sword fighting were popular among the users who saw it as a fun alternative to running on a treadmill or lifting weights.
28-year-old Nadeem, who owns a Sony Playstation 4, told Poocho, “If you could somehow turn that (VR) into a game or something like that, where you pick up a dumbbell or do some kind of stretches, I would be very interested in that.”
VZFit, a fully immersive virtual reality game which one can play while using the stationery exercise bike in their homes, gives users sensations like flying a helicopter, or riding an animal. Eric Malafeew, CEO of Virzoom, the company that makes the game, told Forbes’John Koetsier, “Of course [we] have tanks and helicopters. But things nobody’s ever done, like ride a Pegasus and fly over a canyon, lasso a cowboy. So, those were the kinds of games we made at first and then we kind of cracked the nut of cycling around the world using Street View.”
But the biggest challenge that users face in the VR world, especially in a city like New York, is space, apartment sizes being what they are in the city. This was borne out by testimonies of VR users Poocho spoke to. The challenge they told Poocho is much more about actual square footage and not about reorganising furniture as much. This can significantly impact the growth of VR as a fitness alternative among the young, who typically live in smaller rented spaces. The other aspect that may impact its popularity is that other than some brands like Oculus Quest, quite a few headsets still require to be tethered to a computer, which might make movements required for a workout difficult. Meanwhile VR companies are on the quest to make more compact devices that could help users experience more even in constrained spaces.
*Participant name is changed to protect identity.