According to a report released last summer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), less than 23% of American adults are meeting federal recommended standards for exercising. Since advances in technology have led to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, is it possible that technology itself could help reverse the problem?

Over the past three decades, people around the world have become fatter and Americans lead the way. One in three adults in the United States is overweight. It’s such an epidemic that it has actually become “normal” to be 15-20 pounds above one’s recommended weight, but this is incredibly unhealthy for our bodies and our long term health.

In addition to the weight crisis, our society is aging. While 8.5% of the population is currently age 65 and over, this is expected to jump to 17% by 2050. In other words, this is many of you (and definitely me!) so I can’t help but wonder what actions we can take now to help ensure that we look a bit more like Betty White or Morgan Freeman when we reach our 80s than characters from Wall-E when we’ve barely hit middle age.

Speaking of middle age, health problems are going to crop up anyway so if you’re approaching your mid-40s, you might suddenly feel cheated that society went out of its way to prepare you for puberty, but no one told you what to expect when you hit 45. For those of you already there, you’re already at an increased risk of:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • hypertension
  • gallbladder disease
  • sleep apnea
  • increased cholesterol levels
  • colon and breast cancer
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • bone and muscle loss
  • lower metabolism
  • increased belly fat
  • depression

While exercise can’t stop or cure all of these issues, definitely it can prevent some, delay others, and even reverse some.

Why People Are Exercising Less

In order to address a problem, we need to first determine the causes. There seems to be a general consensus about the reasons people are less physically active.

For one thing, despite the fact that technology should have made our lives simpler, on average people are more stressed and busier than in the past. Stress leads to unhealthy habits such as watching more television and making poor food choices.

Exercise is no longer part of our daily routine. In the past, people obtained more physical activity from household tasks, yard chores, or farm work. Many of those activities have been replaced by options that require little or no physical effort for most of us (and it has become acceptable to have someone do those activities for us).

Even in the push to add exercise back into our lives, many people try this and fail. Just look at how many people join gyms in January and then drop out by the end of February. If it’s inconvenient for people, most won’t stick with it. Others won’t continue going to the gym, yoga studio, or even to the local track because they’re already uncomfortable with their lack of muscle tone or the extra fat they carry so they simply see it as a lost cause and give up.

Some people don’t stick with exercise because they have the wrong motivations. We look at our bodies and decide we want them to look better, but this is a poor motivation when we live in a society where we’re surrounded by others who are overweight. When being overweight is “normal,” the motivation to change that status just isn’t going to stick.

Change is Needed

If we look at the reasons people aren’t exercising, it’s evident that we need a change in attitude. We can’t change everything that is influencing a reduction in exercise, but we can change our attitudes about the reasons we need to do it. While we might not be able to return to a time when each of us works to plant, grow, harvest, and then eat our own food, we can decide to make exercise about overall health and fitness rather than looks. There will always be things about our bodies that displease us, but ultimately our goal should be better health. If we could instill that mindset in young people now and begin to integrate healthier habits overall for ourselves, we might be able to see a healthier population of aged persons in 2050.

How Virtual Reality Can Help

As someone who was pretty much opposed to technology prior to virtual reality, two years ago I would’ve suggested that we simply find ways to remove technology from our lives and that might fix our problems. Since we can’t stop progress, it makes more sense that we work to find ways to embrace it in such a way that it will help humanity rather than harm us. Let’s consider the specific technology of virtual reality.

When most people think of VR, they immediately think of it as a traditional video game, except maybe with a bulky headset and some sort of 3-D features. In truth, mainstream society knows very little about virtual reality or the fact that it might be the greatest contribution to solving the healthcare crisis we’ve seen to date.

Consider the recommendation that Americans should get at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week. When you consider the reasons people aren’t exercising, what if they had something that was convenient, didn’t require them to be seen by others, was enjoyable, and became an active habit that replaced sedentary television viewing?

For many early VR adopters, they’ve discovered that exercise is easy when it’s simply part of their daily routine. In other words, it’s a leisure activity, but unlike television and traditional computer games, VR requires players to be physically interactive. There’s at least a little movement required in VR games and many are incredibly physical so it’s literally easy to exercise and there’s the added benefit that it’s nearly impossible to snack passively while in VR.

With games like Beat Saber, Creed, Echo Arena, and many others, users are having fun while also experiencing a challenging cardiovascular workout.

Many VR games result in intense workouts equivalent to traditional sport activities. Click on the image to visit the VR Institution of Health and Exercise to see more comparisons.

In addition to physical activity for exercise, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends muscle-strengthening activities for adults at least twice a week. For anyone who has played VR games like In Death or Hot Squat, you already know that even though it’s “virtual” reality, our muscles don’t know this and they’ll be screaming in pain the next day if you overdo it.

VR Fitness for Adults

VR Fitness Insider regularly shares stories of people who have discovered that benefits of VR exercise. People are losing weight, getting fit, and having fun while they’re doing it.

One VR fan who has lost weight is Don Hopper, Jr., 48, who lost 50 pounds last year playing BoxVR and Beat Saber. He believes there is a lot of potential for VR as a fitness tool for adults.

“In the past I had tried fad diets and going to a gym, but these things never seemed to work for me, mostly because I would get bored or frustrated with the routines involved,” says Hopper. “With VR these problems are easily overcome by the fact that there is so much great content out there that can get you up and moving around and put you into different environments and situations.”

In other words, it’s hard to get bored when you can literally ride a bike through Paris or slash enemies on an alien planet.

Hopper states that he believes “VR is one of the best fitness options for middle-aged people! Let’s face it. Most of us who are considered middle aged have a pretty hectic schedule these days and finding the time to visit a traditional gym is something that usually gets put on the back burner. With VR, the gym comes to your house and is open whenever you are ready to work out!”

For many middle-aged VR enthusiasts, it’s not just the accessibility that’s appealing, but the fact that it’s just plain fun. Hopper agrees.

“I see myself sticking with VR as a fitness tool as I age for the simple reason that it is a fun way to work out that keeps me engaged and is ever changing as new apps hit the market.”

Older Adults

Others aren’t as convinced. Mark Steighner, a 62-yr-old veteran video gamer who shares reviews at Darkstation, believes “VR technology is still too limited by hardware to be really the tool of choice for fitness.”

He points out that the technology itself and the physical challenges of using VR could be a bit of a challenge for many older adults. Steighner is referring to “older adults” as those age 55 and older. While it’s true that it might be a bit difficult for them to set up a Rift, the Oculus Go is already being used in nursing homes and other therapeutic settings for adults approaching the triple digits. Literally anyone can put on a Go and use it.

Steighner had this to say about Beat Saber. “I love Beat Saber and it led me to explore some other PSVR fitness games, like Creed. However, even though I appreciate the fitness benefits of Beat Saber, I enjoy it as a music game and feel that, as an older gamer, it is probably most valuable as a concentration and motor skill enhancer. That said, it’s a pretty good cardio workout if played at length!”

Considering the recommendations from health.gov for older adults, virtual reality could be perfect for users who can manage the technological hurdles. One of the main assets of virtual reality for the older user is that it encourages aerobic activity, balance training, and muscle-strengthening exercises.

Steighner says he tries “to exercise daily, alternating between free weights and walking. I use VR games to supplement my other workouts.” Perhaps for now, it should be our goal to encourage those in the “older adults” category to use virtual reality as part of an overall fitness routine, but not their main source of fitness.

While some of the most active games – like Echo Arena and Beat Saber – haven’t yet been confirmed, the Oculus Quest will come out soon and that could change the situation entirely. It remains to be seen whether older adults will find it more appealing as a source of fitness since it’s more like the Go in terms of ease of use, but there will be plenty of stimulation for the body physically and mentally with games like Stormland, Superhot VR, The Climb, Robo Recall, and Moss. The Quest could be tremendously appealing for older adults.

Community Support

The fact is that we have an aging society and although we’ve seen an increased focus on healthcare, we need to emphasize health and fitness opportunities that anyone can take advantage of. This means any fitness program should have the following components:

  • affordability
  • accessibility
  • comfort
  • convenience
  • long-term appeal (variety of workouts, continued use as our bodies change, etc.)

Virtual reality pretty much meets all these requirements, though some vary depending on the headset and type of program being used. One additional component that has a tremendous appeal for the middle-aged user is engagement within a community.

As we leave the social settings of college and early 20’s, we see our social circles begin to shrink as people move away and become more involved with their own families and/or careers. Multiplayer VR games provide a lot of opportunity for social interaction, but even single player games have some terrific support systems through social media. For many adult gamers, the community keeps them coming back even when they’re feeling tempted to slack with their VR fitness routine.

Facebook groups such as VR Fit, dedicated to fitness in virtual reality, are terrific places to find like-minded adults who want to live healthier lifestyles and they’re using virtual reality to help them do so.

Other adults are finding that they excel at VR esports such as Onward, Echo Arena, or Sprint Vector. These games can be physically exhausting, but it’s a great way for adults to stay in shape and have the support of a community through resources such as private Discord servers.

KushBerries, age 42, plays for Beginners, the VR League Onward champions at Oculus Connect 5 in Sept. 2018.

Conclusion

While there are some challenges, there are also definite ways virtual reality can be used to help adults achieve a healthier lifestyle.

Positives:

  • Virtual reality is easily incorporated into fitness plans.
  • Users are losing weight and seeing improved health in other areas such as lowered blood pressure.
  • There’s always something new and enticing so it’s easy to switch up fitness routines for a new physical challenge or simply to avoid boredom.
  • It’s convenient, which means people are probably going to use it more.
  • People can avoid feeling embarrassed about exercising in public.
  • Games provide a huge variety of fitness level challenges. There’s something for the healthy 30-yr-old adult who can do an hour of squats with no problem, but there are also games for the bedridden 80-yr-old adult who needs a simpler workout.
  • There are appealing community support networks.

Negatives:

  • General public still isn’t aware of virtual reality or how it can benefit them for personal fitness.
  • The technology isn’t accessible for some people. It’s difficult to set up something like the Rift with sensors. (However, portable headsets already make this a non-issue and the Quest should change this to a positive point soon.)

Neutral:

  • For those who want to stick with more traditional forms of fitness, it’s still possible to go to the gym and still reap the benefits of virtual reality fitness programs if you’re fortunate enough to live near a Black Box VR location. Black Box VR integrates traditional fitness equipment, strength training, and cardio workouts with the immersive environment of VR to offer a unique virtual reality gym experience.
  • The technology is still relatively costly, this should be reviewed in perspective. According to a 2018 study from My Protein, the average American adult spends $155 per month on their health and fitness. In other words, people are already spending a ton of money and a good VR headset can be purchased for as little as $150. Granted, someone could simply go walking for free, but the fact is they probably won’t.

Overall, while virtual reality definitely can be used as part of a beneficial fitness program for adults, it seems that we simply need to work harder to help the average citizen recognize how it might help them. Virtual reality is incredibly difficult to describe. I can definitely say I wouldn’t be using it today if I hadn’t simply shut up and put on the headset. Now my family can’t hardly get me out of it.

It’s up to the early adopters to spread the word and continue to help people see how it can benefit them. The world seems to be in agreement that we need to live healthier lifestyles and exercise more. If we can help them recognize how virtual reality could be used to achieve that goal, it’s possible that we actually could begin to see a healthier generation of middle-aged and older adults and at least make a positive impact for improved overall fitness and lifestyles.

 


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