The Virtual Gym


October 3, 2020

Words by: Omar Mouallem

How to get fit playing video games.

As Canadians brace for a surge of Covid-19 cases this fall and winter, it’s likely we’ll have to shelter-in-place again. No more dining out, going out, or working out. May I suggest a work-around? Virtual reality.

When the pandemic forced me to lockdown in spring, I was anxious for an escape that didn’t involve sourdough bread. I needed a new environment, a reason to move my body, and a house to myself.

That’s when V.R. occurred to me. When I first demoed the technology, in 2014, I found them clunky, dizzying, and gimmicky. A lot has changed since then. V.R. headsets are more physically and visually comfortable. You still look like a dork in one, but they’re portable now—no computer required—so you can take it to a private room. Best of all: they’re much cheaper. Facebook’s mass market V.R. set, Oculus Quest, starts at $460.

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Evidently, I wasn’t the only one thinking this. Along with sweatpants, flour, and toilet paper, every retailer was out of stock. I put in a pre-order and eventually it arrived.

I was immediately drawn to lifestyle apps that gave me a decent workout and got me out of the house, so to say. These workout games and meditation apps were just what I needed. The fact that there’s a Virtual Reality Institute of Health & Exercise researching their health benefits made me feel less ashamed about the puddle of sweat forming around my feet.

The website,, is full of useful information, including calories burned with each activity. One thing it doesn’t tell you: spend the extra few bucks on a fitted sweatband.

If perspiring into a computer isn’t reason enough, it’s just good hygiene. There’s a global pandemic, after all.

When I first demoed the technology, in 2014, I found them clunky, dizzying, and gimmicky. A lot has changed since then. V.R. headsets are more physically and visually comfortable. 

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The calories burned per hour were estimated by the site, based on a 60 kg. person and peak metabolic rates. Apps range in price from $11–$35 or by monthly subscription.

No fitness app comes close to Supernatural in terms of calibration, design, and fitness trainers. Yes, there are trainers— three high-energy, real-life experts guiding an array of stretches, aerobics, and meditations. With musical challenges similar to Beat Saber and FitXR, you’ll lunge, squat, two-step, and stretch atop beautiful landscapes. It might feel like going to the gym (albeit one atop a glacier); even the monthly fee is like having a membership (for much, much less, and without any sketchy smallprint). It’s not perfect: visual targets are sometimes camouflaged in their surroundings. But it’s a new product that regularly innovates and improves. Though it doesn’t yet have a VR health rating, it’s probably on the high-side of calories burning.
[intensity rating] 5/5 [fun] 4/5

Picture Dance Dance Revolution, but drumming instead. You’ll quickly realize you’re choreographed while chopping down the coloured boxes flying toward you. The original soundtracks have big names behind them, like Green Day and Timbaland, tempting you to believe you look cool to onlookers. You don’t, but you are getting the exercise equivalent of a light game of tennis.
[Calories] 431 per/h
[intensity rating] 4/5 [fun] 5/5

FitVR is aerobics with some game twists, like high-scores and calorie targets. An Australian-accented trainer pumps your energy as you box and lunge inside a Tron- inspired gym. There’s a social feature, too—creepy bodiless avatars of other players doing the same challenge in real-time. Designed by fitness experts, classes have unique soundtracks and paces, with intermittent cool downs. There are plenty of sessions, with frequent new additions. Select by musical genre, intensity, or durations of up to 60 min.
[Calories] 385 per/h
[intensity rating] 4/5 [fun] 3/5

You’re ready for a rematch after being pulverized by a realistic athlete in an amateur boxing tournament. But you’re also out of breath from the match’s full-body workout. Hit the punching bags in the virtual gym and train before making your triumphant return. Your muscles will ache tomorrow from all that ducking, dodging, and swinging, but at least you’re a world champion. For a story-based alternative, train with Rocky Balboa in Creed, though it’s not as visually comfortable.
[Calories]: 875 per/h
[intensity rating] 5/5 [fun] 4/5

According to the VR Institute of Health, this hyper-futurist take on racketball is the physical equivalent of an elliptical workout. Unlike an elliptical, it’s addictively fun. A better comparison is pinball. That’s what it feels like swinging a pulsating ball at targets cladding the virtual dome, trying to keep the clock from running out. Only, you’re inside the machine. There are lots of different levels with new ones added monthly, or go into endless mode to play until your arms are tired.
[Calories] 275 per/h
[intensity rating] 3/5 [fun] 5/5

Images courtesy of Supernatural

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