The concept of ‘VR fitness’ doesn’t make immediate sense to most people. Despite seeing major growth in 2019, even just ‘VR’ is not all that well understood outside of early adopter circles and groups of gamers. The vast majority of people still haven’t wrapped their heads around what VR is, and how it’s played with full motion controls and head tracking, so it deserves a little more explanation.
Adding ‘fitness’ into the mix adds a lot of new connotations to the conversation as well, broadly begging the question: “What is VR, and how does it make you fit?”
There are, luckily, a whole bunch of possible answers to that question. VR is becoming more and more diverse in terms of the types of games you can play. In fact, we’re not nearly as sequestered to the same small handful of quintessential VR games as we were even just a year ago.
How Does Playing VR Make You Fit?
When you’re talking about getting fit in VR, you’re talking about the gameplay that requires you to move your arms, head, or even your entire body. Whereas most non-VR games abstract their gameplay out exclusively to button presses and thumbsticks, active VR games (as in, not the ones that lean heavily on gamepad control schema) are propelled by motion controls that use many different muscles in your body.
You might have heard of motion controls used in gaming before. They were made popular in 2006 with the launch of the Nintendo Wii, and have even appeared in Nintendo video game consoles as recently as last year, with the subsequent release of the Nintendo Ring-Con and Nintendo Ring Fit Adventure.
That said, unlike the Nintendo Wii or even the Nintendo Ring-Con, which both have you facing directly at a TV screen, your VR headset tracks your position inside of a 3D video game world that overlays your entire field of view. It’s not quite the same thing as being put into the game — as pre-2017 VR marketing hype would suggest — but it’s pretty darn close.
Choosing the Right Games
Each VR game uses motion controls in an entirely different way. VR, as a medium, is pretty open-ended in terms of what’s possible. Some games, like Beat Saber, BoxVR, The Thrill of the Fight, and SUPERHOT VR, each make use of static play areas – where the gameplay comes to you while you focus on what to do next.
Other games make use of thumbsticks to move your avatar around, but they still put you in charge of interacting with the virtual environment and making things happen with your own motor skills. Games such as Asgard’s Wrath, Onward, and Pavlov VR fit into this category.
Further still, you have VR games that let you move around in expansive spaces by moving your hands and arms. Games that let you use Natural Locomotion, feature ‘arm swinger’ style movement ala GORN or H3VR, and games that let you propel yourself by grabbing and pulling or pushing geometry in the game world (Boneworks, Lone Echo, Stormland) each fall into this category.
Some games will fall more into the domain of low-intensity steady-state exercise, where you will slowly burn calories over a long period of time as you play for about an hour or longer. Meanwhile, some games, such as The Thrill of the Fight, will push you all the way to HIIT levels of exertion, where you’ll be winded within 20 to 30 minutes. This is pretty normal for sports games that require you to box or fight, and/or make tons of movement in a tight window.
Most VR games, however, include game design that takes some, or most, of the pressure of physically doing the things your avatar is attempting to do off of you. If you want to play VR games specifically to help you burn calories, engage in high-intensity cardio, or build muscle, you actually want less of this game design. This is explained a bit more below.
Building the Right Routine
What I’ve learned in my time writing at VR Fitness Insider over the past few years, and in my own ebbs and flows with VR fitness as a whole, is that I struggle to see any kind of lasting results when I’m off my routine.
As with any other form of exercise, you’re not going to see any real progress if you just pop in for a light spin in the ol’ VR headset every so often. You have to treat it like actual exercise, just as you would if you were going to the gym to work out. The thing to remember about VR is that, while it can be fun (and, trust me, exercising by making progress through video games in VR is tons of fun), it only gives you as good of a workout as you’re willing to get.
By which I mean that you can’t half-ass it. You have to invest yourself into VR fitness, otherwise, there are no “fitness” results to speak of in the long term, where it really matters. As with anything else related to fitness, VR fitness is a lifestyle choice that requires habit formation for you to get — or keep — any of the results you attain.
The more physically rigorous a game is, and the more you play that game, the better. But we can’t really tell you what the best routine for you will be. Naturally, that’s up to you since, after all, VR fitness gaming is still a form of gaming. We still want you to be entertained (and distracted) to a certain degree, otherwise what’s the point of doing this versus spending the same amount of time at a gym?
The great thing about VR fitness gaming is just how ‘signposted’ it is. The point of VR fitness is that you lose yourself in a game and burn calories by accident over time. In the case of games like Beat Saber and BoxVR, you might be doing some very physically demanding work, but you’re guided every step of the way.
If you want the best results, you might want to play active VR games in arbitrary ways; adding extra weighted gear and/or setting up certain in-game limitations — like limiting movement in Skyrim VR so that your character only moves when you swing your arms, as one specific example — to make simple in-game tasks harder and more physically punishing, thus making your routine more about fitness and less about gaming for its own sake.
Obviously, adding limitations won’t do much for making VR games more fun, but we’ve found that doing so will certainly make your VR fitness routines more rewarding.
Additional Advice to Get Started With
Choosing the Right Type of Headset
There are a bunch of different headsets to choose from. While most VR headsets are completely out-of-stock online at the time of this article’s writing, you should consider the following advice when thinking about buying a VR headset for the purpose of VR fitness gaming.
Here are the different types of headsets to look over:
Standalone VR is the best option on this list. This category is dominated by the Oculus Quest right now, with very minimal competition coming from HTC with the Focus Plus.
The Oculus Quest is $400, doesn’t need a PC to run, and you can play with it anywhere you’d like. The entire VR experience is tracked by a series of cameras mounted directly onto the Quest and you don’t need any additional cables, expensive extras, or anything else. This is important for VR fitness gaming because you can move around a real-world space as gracefully as you like, given that you play in a well-lit space.
Not only does it run many of the latest active VR fitness titles like OhShape and Beat Saber, but you even have the option to plug in the $80 Oculus Link cable and get the full oomph of PC VR gaming if you do have a powerful gaming PC that can play VR titles. It even works with SteamVR, making it both a killer standalone VR headset and a PC VR headset in one.
We don’t really recommend the Focus Plus for most VR users across the world right now, primarily because outside of China, the headset is priced for enterprise use at $800. It’s supposed to be a great headset for developers, but not really what we focus on or target at VR Fitness Insider.
Modern PC VR headsets are arguably the most comfortable they’ve ever been. Whereas the Oculus Quest is a bit more weighed down in the front, due to it containing enough electronics to power the demand of VR games, newer PC VR headsets are much more balanced overall.
You don’t need to get fancy with a $1000 Valve Index here, but you will have a smoother and more enjoyable experience in VR fitness games when you have a higher refresh rate. Currently, the Valve Index offers the highest refresh rate on the market (at 144hz, double the Oculus Quest’s refresh rate of 72hz).
The PlayStation VR headset isn’t our first pick, but it isn’t a bad pick overall. If you have a PlayStation 4, and especially if you have one of the nicer PlayStation 4 Pro models, you’ll find that there are plenty of games to choose from when setting up a PSVR with Move controllers.
Setting Aside a Play Area
When getting started with VR fitness gaming, you want to make sure that you have a solid play area set aside for you to get physically active in. Luckily for you, we have a full guide on that.
Choosing the Right Nutrition
When you’re doing any type of fitness routine, whether you’re trying to build muscle, or whether you’re trying to train for a certain competitive sport, or whether you’re just trying to lose weight, you always want to make sure that you’re feeding your body what it needs. We have a guide for that too.