With the new year upon us, we all want to know what’s the next best thing in fitness? How will the future of fitness look? What’s in store for 2023? Today, we share with you the predicted fitness trend for 2023.
To have a clearer view of the future we often reflect on the past, where we see a growing trend towards our population becoming increasingly overweight and inactive. This trend has negative connotations on our physical, mental, and emotional health. While we recognize that exercise can play a key role in the prevention and treatment of many lifestyle-related diseases and discomforts, only about 20% of the population meets the physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes/week of vigorous-intensity activity (Hunter, 2022). Instead, barriers such as boredom, disliking the pain/discomfort of exercise, limited access to fitness facilities, and a lack of time prevent us from taking charge of our health and meeting the physical activity guidelines. Therefore, when I started looking towards the future, I wondered, what could be coming down the pipe that would make fitness fun, enjoyable, accessible, and change our perception of time???
One fitness trend that caught my attention included the gamification of fitness through virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). These modalities deliver a fun, immersive, interactive fitness experience that boasts top music tracks and integrates 3D graphics with sensor technology, all from the comfort of our own homes. With this emerging technology you can run, bike, and row through some of the most beautiful places on earth (AR), or you can escape the feeling of exercise and become fully immersed in a game that challenges you to score points by striking objects with a lightsaber, fending off enemies, and smashing targets (VR). While research is ongoing, the use of AR/VR fitness technology can result in the same energy expenditure as “traditional” gym-based workouts!
The gamification of fitness through AR and VR isn’t necessarily new (emerging around 2015) however, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to accelerate its use and growth. Now VR/AR fitness is moving towards the mainstream as it offers an attention-grabbing way to turn exercise into a game. To participate you need access to the VR headset with handles (hardware) and fitness apps (software). Many apps offer a free trial after which there is either a single purchase price or a subscription-based (monthly or yearly) fee. The currently available games range from traditional workouts with a fitness coach (including HIIT, rowing, cycling, yoga, Pilates), to sport-based games (such as dance, boxing, climbing, racquetball, archery, soccer), to game-focused apps where oftentimes you don’t even know you are about to get a sweat session in. Some apps can be paired with fitness equipment (like a rowing erg), others integrate with fitness tracking apps (like Strava, Apple Health, and Google Fit), and most offer in-game metrics that track your progress and energy expenditure (through caloric expenditure, METs, and/or heart rate). Typically, the games last for 10-30 minutes and participants report being fully engaged as they strive towards achieving new levels, unlocking content, and winning trophies. Best of all, new games, classes, and content are regularly released. Check out this article which reviews the top VR fitness games.
To assess this fitness trend, I turned to Deci & Ryan’s (2000) self-determination theory, which is a lens that helps us understand the likelihood one will seek out and engage in a given task. The three key components of this theory include autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and I feel VR fitness has hit the mark on all three fronts. Autonomy refers to participating in an activity of your free choosing. Most of us would be more likely to stay home and play video games than go to the gym, therefore gamified VR/AR fitness seems to speak directly to our autonomy-driven desires. Also, with so many apps and environments to choose from the VR/AR fitness world offers a ton of options to players. Looking to the next component of this theory, the opportunity to display competence and experience mastery is a key driver in all video games. Their design has been described as addictive, where the quest to conquer a new level or unlock hidden components shortens the feedback loop, resulting in a huge rush of dopamine that not only makes us feel successful but leaves us wanting more. Lastly, relatedness can be achieved through cooperative games or by using multiplayer modes which are available in some VR/AR games. Using self-determination theory, it seems VR/AR fitness could be a key tool to help us become a more active population, combat our lifestyle-related diseases and discomforts, and assist us in finding joy in movement again.
Other strengths of VR fitness include the fact that it can be played at home, which removes the intimidation that is often associated with going to the gym as well as the inconvenience and time one would have to dedicate to commuting. Additionally, players report their time exercising seemed shorter than it was, and they felt less pain compared to doing the same exercise in a gym (Lewis, 2022). Lastly, people don’t typically need to cultivate as much motivation to play video games in comparison to the motivation and self-discipline associated with traditional gym-based workouts. As you can see, many of the big obstacles that hold us back from exercising are overcome with VR/AR fitness options.
With any upside, there is always a downside. Some limitations, given the current state of VR/AR fitness, include the high price tag, as VR/AR headsets are sold for upwards of $300 plus the additional cost of the games. It has also been reported that the headsets are quite heavy, bulky, and aren’t very comfortable to exercise in. The lens tends to fog up as your body temperature and sweat production increase. Some users report that the VR headsets cause headaches and eye strain, and certain games can even cause motion sickness. As technology continues to advance, these are areas that developers need to focus on. Even so, we will likely see the hardware and software improve and the cost of these products drop as more companies race to put products on the market (including Apple). The increased supply and affordability will likely accelerate the widespread adoption and acceptance of this fitness trend.
Even so, VR/AR technology isn’t a replacement for traditional workouts, but rather should be seen as an add-on to our health and fitness routines. The at-home AR/VR fitness options may offer a good cardio-based workout but since resistance isn’t used it is insufficient for building strength or muscle. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that energy expenditure and fitness improvements will be relative to a player’s effort and ability in a given game. For example, one must progress to higher, faster, more challenging levels AND hold themselves accountable for putting in their full effort, with proficient technique to get the most out of the workout. Also, using AR/VR for workouts may increase a player’s risk of injury, if they are unaware of their movement quality. Therefore it is vitally important to stay attuned and connected to your body. We don’t want to be so distracted that we can’t feel pain or ignore discomfort. These are important physiological messages that should never be disregarded.
The long and short of it is, if we keep the pros and drawbacks of this technology in mind, it can be a welcome addition to our fitness routines. No longer should video games be seen as the enemy of an active lifestyle as they can be useful tools that help us move more and sit less. Therefore, we now need to change our perception to explore how these technologies can be used to support our overall health and fitness.
Cotton, S. (2022, July 27). Top 3 VR fitness games to get a workout in. The Gamer. https://www.thegamer.com/virtual-reality-vr-fitness-games-healthy-workout-keep-active/
Hunter, T. (2022, April 23,). Let’s get meta-physical: Why oculus fitness actually works. The Washington Post. https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/companies/lets-get-meta-physical-why-oculus- fitness-actually-works-7faf3274-eda6-4fa1-8a3f-4f7e754e51ea
Lewis, P. (2022, November 23). Aaron Stanton of virtual reality institute of health & exercise. [podcast]. VR Fitness Insiders. https://www.vrfitnessinsider.com/vr-fitness-insider-podcast-episode-2/
Mologne, M.S., Hu, J. Carrillo, E., Gomez, D., Yamamoto, T., Lu, S., Browne J.D. & Dolezal, B. A. (2022). The efficacy of an immersive virtual reality exergame incorporating and adaptive cable resistance system on fitness and cardiometabolic measures: A 12-week randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(1), 210-222. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20010210
Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.