Photo: Gatorade – Bryce Harper Virtual Reality

The Matrix is rife with comparisons to modern-day virtual reality. The scene that I most relate to my own experience is when Neo exits the martial arts training program, uttering, “I know kung fu.” My version of Neo’s training program was called the VR Fitness 50 Day Challenge. It wasn’t quite as instantaneous as Neo’s, but the results were nearly as dramatic. I went into the challenge overweight and sedentary, and 50 days later I was down nearly 15 pounds and – more importantly – I was fit.

The Top of my Game

11 months before I took the VR Challenge I was in peak physical condition. A typical week was spent with 4 hours of rowing Crew for The Ohio State University, 4 hours of cycling to school and back, and 2 hours of strength training. Some weeks I did more. I ate well over 3000 calories a day just to maintain my body weight.

October 2015

The Harder They Fall

Sometimes life just throws a curve ball. My father-in-law was diagnosed with late stage terminal cancer and given only months to live. My wife became his primary caretaker, basically moving in with him as hospice made his final months as comfortable as possible. I dropped out of school to stay home with our infant son who had health complications of his own. Needless to say, my fitness came to a full stop.

A few months later my wife was home again, and life returned to relative normalcy, but one thing that I wasn’t able to salvage was my physical fitness. In the middle of an Ohio winter and left shaken from the events leading up to it, stepping back into the gym felt overwhelming to me. So, ten months of sedentary living and incremental weight gain eventually took its toll. Worse still, I had picked up a nicotine vaping habit as my coping mechanism to deal with the stress. Every time I looked in the mirror was a reminder of how far off track my health and well-being had fallen. Even still, the notion of beginning the long hard slog back to wellness seemed like a bridge too far and I had zero motivation to take even the first tentative steps across that yawning chasm.

Enter VR

In July of 2016, the HTC Vive arrived at my household. That first month brought many memorable experiences. I felt awe sitting in a tent under the stars by campfire light in Call of the Starseed, looming dread in a seemingly empty mortuary in A Chair in a Room, and the exhilaration of becoming a powerful sorcerer in Waltz of the Wizard. I felt something else that first month too, something even more unexpected. I felt my shoulders tense loosing arrows at barbarians in Longbow, my breathing quicken smashing colorful orbs in Audioshield, and my whole body pushed to its limits in The Thrill of the Fight. It was a familiar feeling, but one I hadn’t experienced in months, the feeling of being active… and it was fun!

This whole time I had avoided going back to the gym largely because I knew it would be painful. I imagined starting over again as a relative novice and all the discomfort that it would entail just to achieve a fraction of what I was once capable, and of having to force myself to go through the motions again and again for weeks and months before it got easier. Fitness for the unfit couldn’t be achieved without some degree of suffering… or could it? What if I applied the structure of fitness training to virtual reality gaming?

The VR Fitness 50 Day Challenge

I recognized that I had a unique opportunity to prove that VR could be used not only as a fitness tool but as my sole fitness driver. That’s when I formulated my VR Fitness 50 Day Challenge. For 50 days I would commit myself to five 1-hour VR fitness sessions a week, and I wouldn’t do any other type of training outside of those confines other than going on stroller walks with my son.

I measured my bodyweight and waist circumference at the outset and would do a weekly weigh-in and waist measurement after that. I calculated how many calories I would need to consume to lose two pounds per week and used MyFitnessPal to stick to my calorie goal. I wore a chest strap heart rate monitor to measure my calorie burns and would eat back whatever calories I’d burn from my VR workouts to offset my daily intake. I’d share a weekly report on Reddit with my heart rate data and body measurements. I also quit vaping. VR was my coping mechanism now.

August 2016
September 2016

Cheaters Ever Win

Long story, short, I succeeded – and it felt like cheating. I calculated I’d need a mere 1400 calories a day to make my weight goals, but on the days I had my VR sessions I was burning an average burn over 700 calories, making my daily intake closer to 2100 calories – which didn’t feel like dieting.

Likewise, my one-hour VR workouts didn’t feel like exercising. It’s not hard to stay motivated playing what are essentially full-body video games. I’d equip my VR headset and controllers and step into another reality, one where I was a sword fighter, or a professional boxer, or an archery ninja. The time would fly by. For many people, they are motivated by achieving faster speeds and longer distances, but in my case, I was motivated to beat my own scores and advance to higher levels within the games. The better I got at the games, the better my workouts would become, and the more I looked forward to doing them. It was like a positive feedback loop.

After a session, I’d look at my calorie burns recorded by my Polar H7 heart rate monitor and be baffled by how hard my heart was pumping. 700 calories playing VR? That couldn’t possibly be accurate. Yet, I’d keep eating back those calories, and the weight would keep coming off, until 50 days later I had achieved my goal with exact precision. I had lost 14.3 lbs. (100.7% of my goal) and 3.75 inches off my waist.

“Knowing Kung-Fu”

However, this wasn’t a “weight loss” challenge, it was a first and foremost “fitness” challenge. As proud as I am of my positive body composition transformation, I’m even prouder of my fitness transformation. I was no longer intimidated by the prospect of going for a run, or a cycle, or a swim. In fact, the day after my fitness challenge completed, I went for a 1.87 mile run in 24 minutes, and I felt good! I ran free of cramping, breathlessness, discomfort, and I could have gone even longer. My next run, four days later, was 1:05 hours and 4.82 miles! Within a week of completing the challenge I was already running and biking and swimming again and I didn’t suck at it. I was Neo, and it was like I knew kung-fu without ever doing kung-fu.

Back on Top

September 2017, One Year Later, 168 lbs.

The thing is, I like running and biking and swimming. What I don’t like so much is being an out-of-shape runner or cyclist or swimmer. With VR, I leaped that yawning chasm of ill-fitness in what felt like a single bound and landed on the other side an athlete. VR made it possible to go back to doing all the things I had enjoyed doing before, but without any of the struggle. I’m here to tell you folks that VR is a literal game changer. It takes the “work” out of working out while still granting all the benefits. The goal is just having fun and fitness just happens to be an incredibly effective side-effect.

How have you “cheated” your way to legit athleticism? Let us know in the comments below!

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Tim Donahey

Tim Donahey is an NASM certified personal trainer, former competitive powerlifter, VR fitness enthusiast, and CEO of VR Fit. After more than 10 years in the fitness industry, Tim discovered firsthand the profound impact of using virtual reality as a tool for athleticism and embarked on a 50 day experiment to test the benefits of a purely VR based fitness lifestyle. The overwhelmingly positive results of his experiment lead Tim to found VR Fit where he develops and implements VR fitness solutions for people from all walks of life.