Get fit in virtual reality

Lao Tsu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, said, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Unfortunately, a lot of people are speeding to the wrong destination, each year putting on extra pounds and becoming more sedentary. But people do have choices. Make a change now to be more active, one way or another, or anticipate the inevitable earlier than necessary.

What’s a new way to get active that may seem unappealing to those who haven’t tried it yet? New research suggests that virtual reality (VR) might be the ticket, including for older adults. Strapping on a bulky headset and learning to use the technology are the first obstacles, but the benefits for those who get into the game are impressive.

VR can take many different forms, but here we are talking about computer-based equipment that enables users to interact with a simulated environment while getting feedback on performance.

In one study, a group of older citizens was supervised using VR equipment to engage in stretching, aerobic, and coordination exercises. In comparison with another group not exercising, the study participants improved their fitness, flexibility, strength, cardiorespiratory performance, balance and agility.

The technology can be fun. Admittedly, a pleasant walk around the block with the family dog is a wholesome tradition. But don’t preclude the idea of descending into the basement to where the kids have hooked up the VR equipment. It remains to be seen if older citizens will take up VR games for fitness, but science suggests we should promote it.

VR is emerging as a promising tool in the treatment of more than just general fitness. For Parkinson’s disease, innovative use of virtual reality games is proving more effective than traditional approaches to improve gait and balance and to reduce the risk of falls.

Researchers are now exploring the potential for VR exercises to produce better results in reducing pain, improving disability, enhancing range of motion, and increasing treatment satisfaction in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain.

VR is being used in the treatment of mental health problems too, with promising results in treating anxiety, schizophrenia, and substance-related and eating disorders. Among older adults, the technology is helping make more accurate diagnosis of cognitive impairments.

Researchers are also finding that people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia can benefit from VR experiences that evoke a sense of the familiar. At University College London, a VR game is being tested for effectiveness in identifying early signs of Alzheimer’s by assessing how well people navigate simulated surroundings.

A study conducted by Stanford University immersed seniors into virtual reality experiences such as parachuting, playing with puppies, or taking in panoramic views of remarkable places around the world. Researchers are measuring the extent to which participating in VR activities improve outlook and social connectivity.

Retirement communities and assisted living residences are taking note of the entertainment value, but also in the physical, mental and social elements of VR.

But it’s the effectiveness of VR in weight loss and general fitness that deserves more attention – for children, adults, and seniors alike. A study published in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise involved two similar groups of people riding exercise bikes at the same level of resistance, with one group wearing VR headsets. “The data collected led to the conclusion that working out while wearing a virtual reality headset will lead to a higher heart rate, and in turn can lead to burning more calories during a workout.”

So treat VR as another option for exercising, and enjoy all the extra benefits.

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