Our experiences are highly sensual, and it’s how our brains process our memories. We tend to think about the past in terms of what we saw or felt, not necessarily what something smelled like if it wasn’t central to the experience. Our brains are very much trained to seek out and process new visual and sensory information, perhaps as a function of survival or curiosity. Who’s to say?

VR is like a trick for the mind, and it plays on those sense desires. The worlds developers create offer 360 degree immersion that our brains have a hard time distinguishing from reality. We might “know” we’re in VR, but our brain still wants our body to react like that is the new reality. And it adopts quickly, as anyone who has overcome motion sickness in VR can attest to.

One of the reasons why VR fitness is so compelling is that it gives our brains what they want: new visual stimulation! New sensory experiences! But fitness has effects on our bodies too. Combined, VR is a powerful stimulant that can hook our brains and our bodies into a fitter lifestyle.

Dopamine | Your Key to Success in VR Fitness

Dopamine is a powerful “pleasure” chemical triggered by enjoyable activities. Our brains seriously crave dopamine, and, luckily for us, the chemical is released pretty easily. When you experience something pleasurable,bring on the dopamine! But you also get it when you anticipate that pleasurable thing, like the smell of muffins and bread in a bakery (sorry not sorry).

The Dopamine pathway. Credit Harvard: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/

When you interact with something you want in any way, your brain gets a shot of dopamine. Experienced gym goers know that physical exertion is like a dopamine overload. If you’ve ever done an intense workout, like a bootcamp or a personal trainer session, you might notice your workout feels good. You release stress with physical activity, and while you’re sore from it you feel relaxed.

VR triggers dopamine the way the gym does: high or low intensity workouts designed to leave you feeling physically worn out. But you get the added bonus of overcoming virtual challenges, or playing new games. As you develop physical strength, your virtual self improves.

Mind Over Body

The mind is a powerful motivator, either to sit on the couch or get up and move. The challenge is simple: overcome the mind’s preconceptions that progress is difficult or impossible. VR fitness helps provide some signs of progress using a few methods.

Leaderboards are the primary example. Recording your score provides a detailed history of your progress: comparing x points in session 1 to y points in session 7. When games track via leaderboard, you also see how you stack up to other users. More active titles have leaderboards that change rapidly, so those at the top have a hard time holding their spot for very long.

Score screen notes everything you could do better to improve your score.

Multiplayer is an extension of the leaderboard concept. Elven Assassins recently implemented tournaments that provide bragging rights to weekly winners, a powerful incentive to improve in game.

VR fitness is full of these incentives. So many early access titles add new maps, new weapons and achievements over time. Players have some new bar to compare themselves to everyday. Don’t underestimate these small additions to the core formula. When the game is fun, these additions motivate us to become master-level players who are both physically and virtually fit to tackle any challenge.

New VR Fitness Games, New Challenges, and a Hunger for More

Each new game is a different way to use our bodies. I have covered most of the rhythm genre extensively, and each experience is different. Beat Saber has a different core focus of slashing and dodging than Sound Boxing, which is more focused on dancing and natural resistance. BoxVR wants you to train each side of your body and practice specific motions, while PowerBeats wants to test your reactions and build a sweat. Shooters in VR also practice different core mechanics, from wave shooters like Space Pirate Trainer to open-world multiplayer games like War Dust.

Jake Phillips is ready for War Dust in his Kat Walk Mini multi-directional treadmill.

Early Access titles in VR also offer a chance to interact with developers and shape a game in progress. The Thrill of the Fight’s developer is quite active in forums and works hard to meet or exceed his player’s expectations. I’ve spoken to many developers who feel this same drive in everything they do: player first, polished experiences.

We also want more from our games, and we’re largely getting what we want. New VR titles offer more ways to customize gameplay for a more accessible experience at every level. Whether you’re physically fit and looking to game or trying to find a way to get over that first hump, VR has an experience that can scale with you.

Get Addicted to VR Fitness

When you think about addiction, is fitness the first thought that pops into your head? Probably not, but it could be. Our brains are hardwired to accept the world of VR, and to adapt to it as a fitness tool.

Once your headset is on, your brain is open to a world of dopamine triggers and expansive challenges that test the body.

Share your experiences. What workout made you think: “wow, VR fitness kicked my butt and I couldn’t feel better about it”?