I was on a health kick once, but 2020 challenged my fitness plans. Being at home for nearly a year means setting up a home fitness regimen, somehow. Apple launched its watch-connected Fitness Plus, and there are plenty of exercise bikes and Pelotons. Nintendo has its Ring Fit Adventure. But for me, I’ve found myself swinging with lightsabers and punching targets in VR.
The Oculus Quest has been a surprisingly capable fitness device since the day it launched, thanks mostly to Beat Saber. Moving around in VR can feel like an escape to a completely different space. When it’s used for fitness, that means it can inspire me to let go a bit more, absorb myself in the activity and consequently work harder.
VR headsets seem like an inevitability for the next wave of fitness tech. VR fitness is already here, in a way. People have found ways to lose weight with VR workout regimens. There are downsides, though: The equipment isn’t explicitly designed for exercising. Headsets can get sweaty fast, and most aren’t designed to breathe well during workouts. My glasses fog up, sometimes. If I don’t add some sort of protective rubberized eye cushion, the foam padding soaks with sweat, which is disgusting.
Facebook made a move to push VR further into the fitness zone with an app called Oculus Move late last year, which tracks motion and estimated calories in VR apps and games. It’s like a systemwide fitness tracker. This type of app already existed via a sideloaded app called YUR, but Facebook made its own version. The concept demonstrates how the fitness tracker tech that’s on your smartwatch or Fitbit could make the move to headsets more easily than you think.
In some ways, the idea’s already here without a headset. Apple’s Fitness Plus pairs with an Apple Watch and shows heads-up stats during workouts, but displays that heads-up info on a TV screen, iPhone or iPad. Oculus Move goes for a similar idea, projecting a heads-up display in VR that can float above my head, or down on the floor.
Oculus Move’s ring-filling feels Apple Watch-like, but the metrics are different. There are only two rings to fill: One is for total active minutes, and one is for estimated calories. The Oculus Quest measures headset and controller motion to calculate and estimate the numbers, and it’s not perfect. Also, it calculates during any VR activity, which can get weird. My time playing a casual platform game in VR, such as Moss, somehow earns a few active minutes — I guess because I’m moving. But the ring makes more sense for deliberately active fitness games and apps, such as Beat Saber, Supernatural and FitXR.
One thing the Oculus Move tracking goals and dashboard does is set up to show daily achievements just like the Apple Watch Fitness app. And it works. It motivates me. I actually get going, try to play long enough and exhaust myself to get those active minutes. The game becomes a workout.
If VR headsets were more fitness-friendly, and could pair more automatically with fitness trackers, maybe they could be the next big idea in home fitness equipment. I love using the Quest for exercise, but really, VR isn’t optimized for fitness. It’s possible to injure yourself by throwing your hand into a table (it doesn’t have live collision warnings), or you could smack yourself in the head with a controller (I’ve done that many times). The headset should be lighter, too.
The Oculus Quest 2 is a surprisingly good workout device. Just know its limits. (Start with Beat Saber.)
But I feel like I’ve seen the future of my home gym now. I don’t want to go back.
9 great fitness apps to try on an Oculus Quest
Beat Saber: The starting point, and maybe your finishing point, for fitness in VR. It’s music-rhythm light saber dancing, and you need to try it. Beat Saber is not only fantastic and perfectly tuned to lightning-quick reflexes, but it’s also where most of your VR friends are most likely to play. Leaderboards and high-score challenges make a great way to set fitness goals — I keep swapping high scores with my nephew, and it’s exhausting. A multiplayer mode also works for live two-player matches, and there are a solid number of DLC music packs you can buy. The included game also has a lot of tracks (from mostly unknown artists) to play with.
FitXR: A more fitness-focused boxing-type music rhythm experience has separate download packages to buy, and has timed workouts. There are also some in-game tracking metrics for estimated calorie burn.
Supernatural: The most elaborate fitness experience on Oculus Quest feels like VR Peloton, with holographic videos of real trainers guiding you through routines (which involve you swiping at Beat Saber-like targets along with music). Supernatural pairs with the Apple Watch, showing heart rate and fitness stats. But it also requires a monthly subscription fee.
Pistol Whip: A music-rhythm shooting game that feels like The Matrix mixed with Dance Dance Revolution. A new update adds a story-based quest, and there are lots of levels to try. The activity level is pretty low-impact, though.
Eleven Table Tennis: This isn’t quite cardio, but the realism of this ping-pong game is pretty intense at higher difficulty levels.
Tai Chi: A relaxed meditative movement game where you move your controllers around to match positions of glowing targets. Like Beat Saber, but slower and more focused.
OhShape: This clever dance game has you match shapes of cut-out figures to strike poses and keep playing. It makes you move.
Dance Central: Harmonix’s dancing music game feels like a club where you can dance with people and try out moves to songs. It’s tiring but also weirdly fun.
Thrill of the Fight: A complete boxing simulation, with Rocky-like thematic overtones.
What you need to know about VR fitness games
They generally use your hand motions, head movement, ducking and leaning
VR fitness is usually about standing in place and waving your arms around a lot, relying on motion tracking in the controllers. There’s some leaning and ducking in VR headsets that have six degrees of freedom tracking, too. (Oculus Rift/Quest, HTC Vive, Valve Index, PlayStation VR and Microsoft’s VR headsets, for example.)
You need some space
At least 5 square feet, ideally. You’ll be arm swinging and lunging, and you don’t want to smash your hand into a chair or wall or another person. Make sure your VR system’s room boundaries are set well beyond the space you need to be safe.
Your headset can get super sweaty
VR fitness isn’t always a great match with the fabrics and lenses and straps that VR headsets use. It’s not easy to clean a VR headset, either. If it gets gross and soggy, try removing the foam eye-liner and cleaning it gently. There are VR headset liners you can buy, too (I haven’t gotten that serious yet).
You can use your own fitness tracker
Use your fitness tracker to start a stationary workout (or “other” workout), and you can record your heart rate and estimated calorie burn.
Many are music-rhythm games that rely on timing or specific movement goals
There’s a common pattern in many of these games: whether it’s swinging sabers or hitting colored blocks, they’re often about timing and beat, like VR versions of Dance Dance Revolution.
Listen to your body
VR fitness games won’t tell you if you’re overextending yourself. Much like when I pulled a muscle in Ring Fit Adventure on the Switch, you need to remember to keep to your own pace, even if the game is screaming at you to do something. Start at the easiest setting and work your way up.