Could Virtual Reality Be the Future of Fitness?

NBCUniversal, Inc.

Only about 20% of Americans get the recommended amount of exercise a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but researchers say there's a tool on the market that has the potential to change that.

According to industry experts, 2019 was the biggest year yet for virtual reality headset sales and many of the virtual reality games require players to exert an amount of physical energy.

When 28-year-old Martin Calugay straps on his virtual reality headset, his living room becomes his personal boxing gym.

He says between a new baby and a full-time job as a finance client service specialist, it's been a struggle to exercise and since he'd always liked video games, he says he got a VR headset for Christmas.

Advancements in medical technology is giving critically sick patients their best chance of getting well. That's especially true for babies born with congenital heart defects, which often require complex surgeries when babies are just days old.

"I've actually lost four pounds since I got this headset!" said Calugay.

The team at the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise at San Francisco State University has heard countless stories like Calugay's.

The Institute was formed three years ago within the school's kinesiology department to calculate the kind of workouts VR games can provide to users.

"We basically look at how virtual reality gaming can be a form of exercise," said principal investigator and Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Dr. Jimmy Bagley.

Getting bored with the same old workout? Virtual Reality is giving people a way to mix up their workout routine. You can game, go on an adventure or just put a little more fun in fitness.

They use a variety of scientific equipment to calculate how many calories a player burns while playing any of the dozens of games on the market.

"We want a really accurate measure, so we actually measure the oxygen you breathe in and the oxygen you breath out, so without getting technical, we look at the calories you're burning during gameplay and compare that to walking, jogging or tennis or whatever," Bagley said.

This is done while the player is immersed in a virtual game, where he or she doesn't have time to think about your form or calorie burn.

Instead, the player is focused on surviving or dominating in the game, whether it's by destroying objects coming at him or her, or dodging blows from a virtual reality character in a boxing game.

Virtual reality is being used to help those struggling with addiction. During a therapy session, the headset places patients in realistic virtual situations that help them work through triggers of drug and alcohol addiction.

The team has created VR Exercise Ratings, found here.

"This is a game, but at the same time, it's also an intense exercise. We hope that people go into thinking it's a game but as a consequence get exercise out of it," said project coordinator Trenton Stewart.

The VR fitness trend is resonating with entrepreneurs and consumers.

Black Box VR claims to be the world's first full-fitness virtual reality gym experience, with locations in California and Idaho.

Newly-expanded simulation lab offers invaluable experiences to Dallas nursing students.

An Austin high school teacher shared video with NBC 5 of his students using virtual reality in their P.E. class.

All of it is launching the San Francisco research team into future projects.

"Now we want to see if people stick with it, whether they'll do it at home or at the gym. We want to look at older adults, kids, people with disabilities, the sky is the limit with this kind of research," said Dr. Bagley.

He notes a couple of downsides. It may cause motion sickness at first, and the price of a headset can cost $100 to $1,000.

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