I’m the furthest thing from a “fitness person” there is, and other than a few miles of dog walks per day, I’ve been finding it hard to motivate myself to get moving — especially in the dead of winter and amidst a global pandemic. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been working up a sweat almost every single day while slicing, punching and dancing in my living room with an Oculus Quest 2 headset strapped to my face. And I just might have fallen in love with working out in the process.
In using the Quest 2 almost every day, I discovered a way to exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise — largely because I’m playing fun, immersive games that make me forget I’m awkwardly flailing around in my apartment. And after talking to several virtual reality and health experts as well as longtime Quest users, it’s become clear that working out in Oculus’ headset can be just as good for you as hitting the gym or hopping on a Peloton. Perhaps more importantly, the various apps and games on the Quest platform have allowed people to stay connected at a time when gathering in person is harder than ever.
Here’s why the Oculus Quest 2 is a great buy for those looking to get active — both from my own personal experience and the experts and enthusiasts whose lives have been changed by their VR exercise journeys.
For the uninitiated, the $299 Oculus Quest 2 is a fully stand-alone virtual reality headset. You don’t need to connect it to a powerful PC, and there are no pesky wires or sensors — just strap on the headset, pick up the two included controllers and you’re good to go. The Quest 2 allows you to create a virtual boundary where you can freely move around, so you’ll get the best workout experience if you have a decent amount of free space.
Before I dove into any games, I set up the Oculus Move app, which is included on the headset by default and allows you to track your activity and set personal goals. I kept it simple at first, with a daily goal of 25 minutes of exercise and 150 calories burned. Then it was time to play.
I started out with a couple of VR games I was already enjoying before I started this experiment: Beat Saber and Pistol Whip. The former is a rhythm game that has you slash targets to music with “lightsabers” in your hands, and the latter is a neon-soaked first-person shooter that has you take out enemies and dodge bullets John Wick-style while thumping electronic music plays in the background. Both games are great, but I got a better workout from Beat Saber — especially when furiously slashing along to my favorite Linkin Park songs on harder difficulties.
I also worked up a decent sweat dancing along to Justin Bieber in Dance Central VR (thank goodness I live alone), and got my heart rate pumping in Blaston, a one-on-one multiplayer shooter that’s effectively dodgeball with guns. But I didn’t really start feeling the burn until I turned to the more fitness-focused apps available on Quest 2.
My first experience with high-intensity VR exercise came from FitXR, which offers a variety of boxing and dancing workouts that have you pump your arms and move your body to on-screen prompts. Even short FitXR sessions had me sweating a lot, and seeing the real-time score leaderboards as well as the avatars of other players made me feel like I was playing an arcade game rather than attending a gym session. FitXR regularly had my arms feeling sore the next morning as if I’d hit the gym for hours, even though I only played it in short 10- to 20-minute bursts.
But my best overall workout came from an app called Supernatural. Like many Quest games built to get you moving, Supernatural has you hit a series of targets synced up to music using two virtual bats. But unlike titles like Beat Saber and Dance Central, Supernatural features actual coaches that motivate you during your workout and guide you through stretches, not to mention it boasts gorgeous in-game environments that transport you to breathtaking real-world locales. Trust me, you truly haven’t lived until you’ve violently flailed your arms to Paramore while standing in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
Supernatural is a fairly big investment compared to many of the games on Quest, as it requires a subscription ($19 per month or $179 per year, with a 30-day free trial) rather than a one-time purchase. But it’s by far the most efficient and fun source of exercise I’ve used on the platform, and as you’ll see below, it has quite literally changed the lives of many of its players.
I’ve only been using my Quest 2 to exercise for a few weeks, but I can already feel the impact it’s having on my well-being. I feel more energized after I wrap up my daily VR workouts in the early evenings, and I’ve been sleeping slightly better overall. These might sound like obvious benefits of being active, but the fact that I finally found a means of moving around that I genuinely enjoy is significant.
I’ve tried other exercise games before (including Nintendo’s highly popular Ring Fit Adventure and Fitness Boxing), and while they were fun, I still very much felt like I was working out. But the fully immersive games on Quest 2 give me that same feeling of Zen I got from playing Guitar Hero in my college days, when the hours would evaporate as I became completely dialed in to the sights and sounds on my screen. The only difference is that the controller is my body rather than a plastic guitar, and I just happen to get really sweaty as a bonus. As such, I find myself often exceeding my time and calorie goals on Oculus Move, simply because I need to play just one more level of Beat Saber or Pistol Whip.
PHOTO: Cloudhead Games
While I can vouch for the ways I’ve personally benefited from using the Oculus Quest 2, I’m a relative newcomer to virtual reality — and certainly not a fitness enthusiast. That’s why I reached out to several experts in the space, including researchers who have been exploring the very real benefits for VR exercise for years.
“I was playing a game called Audioshield, and Steam told me that I’d played 120 hours of Audioshield,” says Aaron Stanton, founder and director of the Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise. “And I remember looking at it and thinking to myself, ‘I feel like this is exercise.’
“And if that’s true, that would make my VR system by far the most effective exercise equipment I’ve ever owned, because an elliptical, a treadmill and a rowing machine are my three that I’ve purchased in my life, and I have not gotten 120 hours on any of them.”
Stanton founded the VR Health Institute to dig deeper into what he believes is the “next generation of exercise,” working with the department of kinesiology at San Francisco State University to come up with in-depth tests that measure how many calories playing a VR game can burn. The Institute’s website currently provides calorie-per-minute ratings for dozens of virtual reality games. For example, a relaxed game like ThunderGod is rated as the exercise equivalent of walking, while more intense titles such as Audioshield are rated as being comparable to biking.
The Institute was able to achieve these ratings thanks to the work of Dr. Jimmy Bagley, an associate professor of kinesiology at San Francisco State University. While Bagley and his team were able to definitively prove that VR gaming can be real exercise, they also discovered a phenomenon I experienced myself: Those working out in VR rarely feel like they’re pushing themselves as hard as they actually are.
“So they basically perceived the [VR] exercise as light, light, moderate, whereas the exercise in real life for them was light, moderate and vigorous,” says Bagley, referring to various tests measuring how subjects feel after working out on both a treadmill and in VR. “So this was the whole idea. You’re playing a game and it’s so fun that you don’t realize you’re exercising.”
Job J. Stauffer, founder of immersive entertainment development group Flow State Transformative, had a similar eureka moment with virtual reality fitness. Stauffer has been on what he calls an “immersive fitness journey,” which began with him becoming the first person to lose 50 pounds in virtual reality back in 2017.
“I’d throw on the visor, and then I’d just start dancing [and] working out,” says Stauffer on his early days with VR music title Soundboxing. “And it would be like 7, 7:30, and then I would take off the visor and it would be almost 1 a.m. I’m like, ‘That was like five minutes. I couldn’t stop. I don’t normally exercise like this.’”
Stauffer also notes that his time in virtual reality has had a significant effect on the kind of exercise he’s able to do while not immersed in a headset. In addition to his VR routines, Stauffer cycles through his hometown of Silicon Valley for about 16 miles every other day and says that he likely wouldn’t be able to do so if he hadn’t built up his stamina in virtual reality.
“That’s one of the things that’s kind of, I would say, an unfair judgment of this doom and gloom scenario. It’s like, ‘Everyone’s inside, and stuck in VR, and they’re hooked, and they’re addicted, and no one has a real life anymore!’ says Stauffer. “If anything, it really enhances your interest and your ability to say, ‘Wow, I can go for a 2-mile walk. I can go for a 16-mile bike ride. I do want to hike to the top of that mountain. Look at my cardio chart from my VR workout from today. This is nothing.’”
On top of being a viable means of working out, the Oculus Quest 2 allows people to connect with one another in ways that are currently hard to do in the outside world. Your best friend might not be able to join your for a run or gym session right now, but in virtual reality they can be right there with you for a game of tennis or golf. Stanton, for example, has been stuck in Vietnam due to the pandemic, but he still manages to play a few games of Racket: Nx with his father in Kansas twice a week, thanks to his VR headset.
Perhaps no group of people exemplifies this sense of connection better than the community that has formed around Supernatural. The app’s most dedicated users, who have surpassed more than 100,000 in total points, known as the “The Supernatural 100k Club,” meet every Sunday over a virtual Zoom brunch hosted by Stauffer. I had the chance to sit in on one of the group’s meetings, and it was incredibly enlightening and uplifting — laughs were shared, tears were shed and countless stories were told about the ways that virtual reality exercise has impacted all of these people’s lives.
The group’s members range in age from folks in their early 30s to those in their early 70s, with varying backgrounds, genders, body types and exercise experience. But there’s one common thread that ties them all together: Thanks to Supernatural, they finally enjoy working out and consider the game vital to both their physical and mental health.
“Supernatural has saved my life,” says Chesney Mariani, who has played the workout game every day since last August and is currently down a total of 60 pounds. “I never enjoyed working out before and now I do. Now everyone thinks I’m the crazy VR lady.”
Many players echoed a common sentiment about how Supernatural and Oculus Quest have pushed them to work out in ways that going to the gym simply couldn’t.
“Going to the gym was something that wasn’t interesting to me. I wanted something that was engaging and active and ongoing,” says Holly Orr, who uses her Quest to stay connected with her family — including her daughter, Robin, another member of the 100k Club. “I feel physically better than I have in 20 years.”
The Supernatural community was also quick to point out the value of the game’s coaches, who provide an intimate level of motivation that can go beyond what you’d get from services such as Apple Fitness Plus.
“I’m not a Peloton subscriber, but based on what I see out there and the cost of what people are paying for this level of exercise … there’s nothing those things give me that we’re not getting with this — and so much more,” says Eric Simon.
Multiple people in the group mentioned that they’re in the best shape of their lives since starting their VR fitness journey, and it doesn’t stop there. The 100k Club includes Covid-19 survivors and those with chronic health problems, all of whom noted that playing Supernatural on Oculus Quest has aided in their recovery or made dealing with their condition easier.
“I for sure know in my heart that I wouldn’t have come out so quickly without Supernatural,” says Holly Fields, who lost 80 pounds over her first year of VR exercise and recovered from Covid-19 earlier this year.
“I would fall asleep every night constantly crying, and my doctor told me I needed to find something to manage the pain, because it was something I was going to live with for the rest of my life,” says Cintra Davis, who was diagnosed with lipedema early in 2020 and started playing Supernatural shortly after. “After about four or five months in, the pain was less and I was sleeping better. And I think I finally realized four months ago that the pain was completely gone.”
But the members of the Supernatural community haven’t just found VR exercise to be a boon to their physical wellness — they also consider it critical to their mental health, and have found a sense of true community at a time when human interaction is harder to find than ever.
“The mental health piece of this is so [important] that we sometimes forget about it because yes, I have lost 48 pounds and I’m in the best shape of my life. [But] the most cherished part for me is this — having you guys as a community,” says Jacqueline Drake, who was recently injured from a bad fall and found comfort and support in her 100k Club friends while she recovered.
“All these people who are essentially strangers, the one thing we have in common is this game — but it’s a life-altering space,” says Lauren Gayl, a 72-year-old Supernatural player. “Supernatural gives you one of the only opportunities in life to be 100% present. It’s a huge gift.”
I initially challenged myself to work out in my Oculus Quest 2 for two weeks. That period is up, and I haven’t stopped. I look forward to my daily sessions of slashing colorful cubes to techno music and dodging bullets in colorful sci-fi worlds — not just because it burns calories and releases some much-needed endorphins, but simply because it’s fun and provides a total escape from the monotony of sitting in my bedroom office all day.
If one thing is clear, I’m far from alone in this experience. After speaking with VR health experts and more than a dozen everyday consumers, it became evident that virtual reality exercise is an incredibly viable way to stay fit — especially for those who typically hate the gym. And while going on a run or pumping some iron is largely done in isolation these days, playing and exercising in VR can keep you connected to loved ones from a distance, and also open you up to a whole new community of folks who just might become lifelong friends.
The Oculus Quest 2 is a bit of an investment, starting at $299, with games that generally cost between $10 and $40 (and in the case of Supernatural, come with a subscription fee). But it’s far more affordable than, say, buying a Peloton bike, which starts at a whopping $1,895 on top of a $39-per-month membership. And it’s a much cheaper and easier way to enjoy VR gaming than buying a wired headset such as the $299 Oculus Rift S or $699 HTC Vive Cosmos, both of which have to be connected to a powerful computer to run properly.
With that in mind, the Oculus Quest 2 is a fantastic value for those looking to get into virtual reality and an especially great way to keep yourself moving while locked down at home. It’ll help you break a sweat while playing a ton of fantastic, immersive games — and could end up changing your life in some surprising ways.