18 February 2021

The reality of virtual exercise

Exercise Technology

Anything that encourages people to exercise more has to be a good thing, right?

Particularly if it comes dressed as shiny new technology designed to appeal to younger folks who might be otherwise ill-disposed to thrashing about in the great outdoors.

So it’s not surprising that among this cohort the practice of virtual reality “exergaming” has become a “thing”.

For the uninitiated, exergaming involves loading a fitness game onto a console such as those made by Nintendo or Sony, donning a VR headset and voila! Pretend exercising becomes just like the real thing.

Which begs the question, what’s the attraction of virtual reality exercise over reality reality exercise?  

Researcher Dr Ancret Szpak from the University of South Australia explains: “VR is particularly promising for exergaming as it keeps players absorbed in the virtual world while distracting them from feelings of physical effort of exercise. In this way, people who are not particularly excited about exercise, can still get their game on and get moving.”

But there is a downside to exergaming and it’s called “virtual reality sickness”. The symptoms are akin to regular motion sickness and include general discomfort, headache, “stomach awareness”, nausea, vomiting, pallor, sweating, fatigue, drowsiness, disorientation, and apathy. Other symptoms include postural instability and retching (sounding more and more like the real thing).  

Dr Szpak and colleagues have examined the impact of playing one popular VR exergame, called Beat Saber.

Their study, published in Journal of Medical Internet Research, tested the effect of VR exergaming on vision, nausea, and reaction times after both short (10 minute) and long (50 minute) game play, finding that while the game was mostly well-tolerated some people had longer-lasting side-effects. This included one in seven players reporting feeling VR sickness 40 minutes after they had finished playing.

“For VR exergaming, the lessons are twofold: first it’s always a good idea to try a brief VR session to make sure you can tolerate it before you dive into longer play; if you feel a bit dizzy after a short time, you’re likely to feel worse after a longer exposure,” Dr Szpak said in a media release.

“Secondly, after playing any VR – exergaming or otherwise – it’s always wise to wait and see how you feel before you take on any higher-risk activity, such as driving a car.”

If you see something stupid, say something stupid … send tips to felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au and go for a walk.