How to Lose Weight with Virtual Reality

How to Lose Weight with Virtual Reality
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One of the most interesting applications for virtual reality is the ability to be instantly immersed in surreal and exciting environments. In doing so, users often feel the effects of “time dilation”, in which the actual amount of time in which they’ve been immersed in VR exceeds their perceived time spent in VR. In other words, time really does fly when we’re having fun!

What if we could use VR’s time dilation effect to reduce the perceived amount of time we spend on tedious or boring activities? Wouldn’t it be great to exercise for what feels like twenty minutes, only to later realize that it’s been a full hour?

Tim Donahey, a Certified Personal Trainer from Ohio, asked himself this question. Due to numerous lifestyle constraints, he recently found himself unable to commit the same level of time and energy to his fitness regimen as he did in the past. Moreover, he increasingly felt that fitness had become a chore instead of being an engaging and exciting challenge, as it had been in his university days as an athlete. This begged the question: how do we find fitness activities that we know will be engaging and fun while enabling us to consistently stick to a regimen?

Tim found that, by using virtual reality for his fitness regimen, he was able to have fun while also meeting his fitness goals. In this interview, Tim will share his experience and results with us while providing a clear step-by-step blueprint for how you can use VR to reach your fitness goals.

<p>Tim Donahey’s weight loss results with virtual reality fitness. </p>

Tim Donahey’s weight loss results with virtual reality fitness.

Tim Donahey

You’re a certified trainer who used virtual reality to lose 14.4 pounds in 7 weeks. Please tell us the story of how you ended up using an HTC Vive as your sole fitness regimen to regain your fitness.

Late last year, I was in excellent physical condition when my family was beset by multiple health crises that suddenly required my full time attention. Naturally, my fitness regimen had to be discarded in light of these greater concerns. My family made it through those troubled times, but my fitness practice never did recover. Eight consecutive months of sedentary living and incremental weight gain left me in the worst shape of my adult life and the prospect of stepping back into the gym arena as a novice held little appeal to me.

After experiencing first hand the level of physical activity that certain VR games call for, I decided to challenge myself to an hour of some of the most physically demanding ones. I strapped on a Polar H7 heart rate monitor and, coupled with a 10 minute VR warmup and cooldown, was astounded to see that I had burned 866 calories by the end. That for me was a lightbulb moment. Doing something fun could get me back into shape! I challenged myself to perform one hour “exervive” sessions, five times a week, for 50 days. I called it the ‘VR Fitness 50 Day Challenge.' 50 Days later I had lost 14.4 lbs and 3.75 inches off my waist.

<p>The results from Tim’s VR Fitness 50 Day Challenge. </p>

The results from Tim’s VR Fitness 50 Day Challenge.

Tim Donahey

It would be difficult for most sedentary people to pick up an exercise regimen that results in an average 732 calorie burn per one hour session, as you did. What was it about VR that made it easy for you to stick with such an intense fitness routine?

True, burning 700+ calories jogging on the treadmill, swimming laps, or some other traditional exercise form isn’t going to be the most attractive option for somebody who isn’t already accustomed to it. Exercise can be fun, but the challenge for many can be getting to that point. In VR, though, getting from the point of being overweight and untrained, to the point of being healthy and fit felt almost effortless to me because it never felt like exercise. Finding the motivation to exercise can be difficult, but everyone likes having fun -- and that’s what playing VR games for exercise is; it’s just fun.

<p>Fitness is fun for some, a chore for others. </p>

Fitness is fun for some, a chore for others.


You mentioned that you were inspired by some celebrity stories about VR fitness that encouraged you to explore the space yourself. Which celebrities were you referring to? In what ways did VR enrich their lives? What were their predictions for how VR would affect the fitness industry as a whole?

Before I ever made the decision to use VR as a fitness tool, I credit two individuals in particular with planting the seeds that later became the 50 Day Challenge. This last year, Terry Crews found a really cool way of bonding with his son, Isaiah, which was through PC gaming. After constructing an impressive gaming PC together, they began playing with the HTC Vive, and Terry made a point of how good it was for Isaiah’s mobility. When Terry Crews vouches for something, I listen.

The other person who recognized the fitness application of virtual reality was Joe Rogan. When he appeared on Duncan Trussell’s podcast, he got the chance to play The Thrill of the Fight, a boxing game. Later, on his own podcast, he told his guests what great exercise it was and how someday professional fighters could use it to face off with simulated opponents a hundred times before they ever step into the ring together. In his words, The Thrill of the Fight is, “an amazing shadow boxing program,” and that another game, Longbow, had him holding his arms up until they were so sore they were shaking. Both games would later feature prominently into my daily VR routines.

<p>Immersive VR boxing. </p>

Immersive VR boxing.

Tim Donahey

What constraints and problems did you have while exercising in VR? What suggestions would you give to people trying to set up their own home-based VR fitness space?

The two biggest barriers to entry right now are going to be the cost and the space requirements. As far as cost goes, I think it’s competitive against an annual gym membership or a premium piece of exercise equipment. Beyond that, it’s necessary to have a dedicated space that allows for full movement - including outstretched arms - from floor to ceiling. In VR you’re unable to see any physical obstacles in your way, so you have to ensure that your space is free of hazards altogether, lest your television screen or ceiling light fixture fall victim to a controller swung at great force.

The other suggestions I would make in order to have a comfortable experience exercising in VR are:

-Crank up the AC.

-Direct fans into your play space.

-Wear breathable clothing.

-Use earbuds instead of over-ear headphones. Ears exhaust heat.

-Wear a bandana and a sweatband.

-When you’re finished, either rinse off your sweaty foam insert or soak in water with a gentle cleanser for an hour, rinse, and then hang dry.

Doing this will keep you from sweating rivers under the headset and keep the headset well maintained.

<p>Use earbuds to reduce the heat on your head while exercising in VR. </p>

Use earbuds to reduce the heat on your head while exercising in VR.


Weight loss is 80% diet and 20% fitness. In addition to the fitness regimen with VR, how did you manage your nutrition? Please run us through all of the stats relevant to your VR fitness journey.

Virtual reality couldn’t control my eating habits, and the calories I was putting into my body had a much greater influence on my weight than the calories I was burning off, but here’s what my virtual reality training enabled me to do: in order to lose 2 pounds a week (my goal), I determined I’d have to consume a mere 1350 calories daily, but after I factored in the average 722 calories I was burning in VR, I was then able to eat an average 2,072 calories and still lose the same amount. So not only did I not feel like I was exercising, but 5 days out of the week I didn’t feel like I was dieting either. At the end of my challenge, I totaled up how many calories I had burned after my 36 hour-long sessions and the total came to 26,339 calories. While not an absolute fact, it’s estimated that burning 3500 calories will shed a single pound. Going by that, my efforts represented about 7.5 of the 14.4 pounds that I lost over the 50 days. Not only that, but I was building muscle and getting stronger too and that’s 100% fitness.

<p>Health stats from Tim Donahey’s VR exercise regimen. </p>

Health stats from Tim Donahey’s VR exercise regimen.

Tim Donahey

Is there any new content that’s been released that you’d recommend to us?

The latest thing that I’ve come across for VR fitness is actually an exercise bike called the VirZOOM, and it works with the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or the Playstation VR. I’m still experimenting with it, but so far it’s been a nice edition to my “exervive” routine.

What specific things about VR hardware or software have to change or be improved to make VR fitness a seamless experience that’s easy to set up and regularly engage in?

Fortunately, the things that will improve VR for general consumers are the very same things that will improve it specifically for fitness. Lighter, better ventilated headsets and wireless technology. I fully expect to see solutions presented on both fronts when the second generation headsets start coming out.

<p>Exercise in virtual reality with VirZoom. </p>

Exercise in virtual reality with VirZoom.

The Verge

What’s been most fulfilling about this journey?

I hoped that by sharing my journey on Reddit that there would be others out there who could benefit, but the response and enthusiasm that my challenge generated has been more than I would have ever expected. I think it would be great if there was a community where people could come together to discuss and share their own experiences with virtual reality fitness to encourage and explore all the possibilities that this new exercise medium brings, so I began moderating a Reddit group: I’m really excited to see how this new community evolves. I also moderate a community on MyFitnessPal.

How would you suggest, step-by-step, that the average person set up a VR weight loss program? Starting with purchasing the VR equipment all the way up to setting up a diet and fitness regimen.

The VR Setup

As I mentioned earlier, VR fitness requires enough space to be able to move around freely, so consider this carefully before buying anything to start your routine. For my challenge, I designated about a 9 foot by 8 foot (2.7 meter by 2.4 meter) space to be my play area. The specific space requirements vary from game to game, but to have the greatest range of movement for the widest variety of games, this definitely gave me a comfortable area to work with, which is why my coffee table has been permanently relocated on its side and up against the wall for the last several months.

<p>Make sure you have enough space for a VR fitness setup in your home. </p>

Make sure you have enough space for a VR fitness setup in your home.

Tim Donahey

It used to be that the HTC Vive VR headset was the only system that could deliver a full room-scale experience complete with hand tracked controllers, while the Oculus Rift was relegated to standing or seated-only gaming, but as of December 6th, that has changed with the release of Oculus Touch and the ability to add additional cameras. To my knowledge, all of the games that I recommend using for VR fitness are also working with the Oculus Rift and Touch controllers, though they may not be optimized for it.

So how does Oculus room-scale compare to Vive room-scale? The recommended maximum size for Oculus Rift 3-camera room-scale is 8 feet (2.4 meters) squared, which falls a little short of my setup. However, some testers have reported being able to stretch those boundaries as far as 9 to 10 feet (2.7 to 3 meters) squared. There are some other constraints to setting up the Oculus Rift for that level of room-scale compared to the Vive, but in the end the two options should be more-or-less comparable.

Which brings us to cost. The HTC Vive is a self contained system that will run you $799, while the Oculus Rift is more segmented. The Oculus headset is $599, the Touch controllers are $199, and the third camera sensor is $79, bringing the total cost to $877.

If it’s starting to look like the HTC Vive is the cheaper option, stay with me, because that isn’t absolutely true. The HTC Vive requires a slightly more robust computer than the Oculus Rift, so, depending on the computing power you have behind your VR headset - and whether you build your own or find a pre-built model - you could still potentially save a few dollars by choosing the Oculus Rift. My personal recommendation for a PC that can support either headset comes under $799, if you build it yourself.

<p>The HTC Vive. </p>

The HTC Vive.

The Verge

The VR Games

Now, for the fun part. The 8 games that featured in my 50 Day Challenge:

Longbow, a “pocket universe” in Valve’s “The Lab,” is an archery game where you defend your castle against encroaching barbarian hordes. To get the most out of the game, pull the bowstring all the way to your shoulder with your bow hand fully extended and fire rapidly. Keep your arms raised. Minimal space needed.

Fruit Ninja VR is a familiar title for many, but the ‘VR’ adds an extra dimension. Literally. Slice the fruit and avoid the bombs to make the world’s most entertaining fruit salad. Try to swing your swords in as wide an arc as possible to extend your range of motion. I recommend sticking to the Arcade mode. Minimal space needed.

Bitslap is basically a speed punching game. Punch the cubes in the order that they appear as swiftly as possible. To maximize your speed, don’t just punch fast, also pull your elbows back quickly between strikes. I recommend doing it on Normal difficulty mode. Minimal space needed.

The Thrill of the Fight is a boxing sim. Use the entirety of your play space to dance around your opponents, duck, bob, weave, defend, and knock them out. Keep your fists raised. I recommend cycling through each contender as fast as possible until your time is up. Maximal space needed.

Some highlights from a recent workout of mine:

Sword Master VR is a sword fighting game where you battle hellish medieval knights who come at you from all sides in an escalating fight for survival. Advance and retreat, squat and block to avoid damage, lunge to strike, and dish out everything you can muster. I recommend cycling through novice levels 1-5, then 6-10, before advancing to higher difficulties. Maximal space needed.

The final 5 minutes of an intense 20 minute bout I finished:

Holopoint is a combative archery wave shooter where you shoot your arrows at the targets as they spawn all around you. Every successful hit can launch an attack against you. Take too long and an attack is launched against you. To get the greatest benefit to your lower body, squat to dodge the enemy attacks. I recommend cycling through waves 1-15 before starting over at 1. Moderate space needed.

Just how many squats can be done in 20 minutes?

HoloBall plays like a cross between racquetball and Pong in the world of Tron. I recommend simply working your way up from beginner or try the endurance mode. Moderate to maximal space needed.

AudioShield is a rhythm punching game. You can select any music through YouTube and the game will process it into a series of colored orbs that you will punch with equipped shields as they careen towards you through space to the timing of the song. The higher the tempo, the more intense the gameplay. Try using the Spartan shields and work your way from Normal mode on up. Minimal space needed.

These games will only push you as hard as you push yourself, so you get to set the pace of your VR workouts. Take breaks when necessary, but try to limit them to just what you need to recover your stamina.

<p>Sword fight in virtual reality. </p>

Sword fight in virtual reality.


Suggested VR Workout Template:

10 Min: Longbow or Fruit Ninja VR (Warmup)

20 Min: Sword Master VR or Holopoint (Lower Body)

20 Min: Bitslap or The Thrill of the Fight (Upper Body)

10 Min: HoloBall or AudioShield (Cooldown)

This template is entirely flexible, but gives you some idea of how you can structure your time. A fast paced game of AudioShield on Elite difficulty, or Holoball on Expert mode, would work just as well as part of the main workout. Bitslap, played at a slower pace, could be your warmup.

Adding Weights

I am constantly pushing myself to take things to the next level, so, once I started losing weight and getting accustomed to the workload of the VR workouts, I started adding in weighted resistance between week 2 and 3 with the help of a weighted vest. I added one 2.5 pound bar to the vest every second workout, which was like adding back on the weight I had lost, then every third workout, once that got to be challenging, and so on. By the end of my challenge I had graduated to 17.5 pounds on my vest, which was only 3 additional pounds when combined with my 14.4 pound weight loss.

I do not advocate for wearing ankle or wrist weights. Given the unpredictable movements of VR, wrist weights run the risk of applying force on the shoulders and elbows at compromising angles. I think ankle weights are safer to use than wrist weights, but I can still imagine if you step out the wrong way, it could leverage your hip or knee to a hazardous degree.I chose to use a weighted vest because, instead of the extremities, the mass is kept close to the center of the body which is more stable and maintains alignment. There is still going to be increased impact on the hips, knees, and ankles, but the force is being applied in a direction that those joints are accustomed to optimally absorb.

Adding a weighted vest is unnecessary and entirely optional. The games will still be plenty intense without it.

<p>Add weights to your workout for added intensity. </p>

Add weights to your workout for added intensity.



Nutrition is a controversial topic with a lot of competing theories and philosophies about what works and what doesn’t. So let’s just disregard all of them for the moment because for 90% of people out there, the diet that is simplest to follow is also going to be the most effective.

Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy, but by following these 5 suggestions you will have very little guesswork and you will always know where you stand:

Step 1: Install MyFitness Pal or Lose It on your phone and tell it your weight loss goals.

Step 2: The app will tell you the number of calories you need to eat daily to accomplish that goal. Stick close to that number.

Step 3: Log all of your meals, snacks, and drinks either by scanning the barcode, using their extensive databases, which includes many restaurants, or directing it to the link for the recipe.

Step 4: Log all of your workouts, either by reporting the number given to you by a fitness tracker or heart rate monitor, or by using a general estimate (eg. 60 minutes of circuit training), so you can eat back all the calories that you burned.

Step 5: Weigh yourself once a week, preferably at the same time. Do this for two weeks. After two weeks, if you’re hitting all your calorie intake goals, but the weight loss reported by the scale seems off, you can scale your daily calorie intake up or down 100-200 calories. Do this for another week or two before reassessing and making further modifications.


When it comes to deciding what to eat, I suggest keeping that simple as well. If you have difficulty finding time to prepare meals with mostly whole ingredients, try an online food delivery service. As a bonus, many of the meals offered by these sites, such as Blue Apron, are already cataloged into MyFitnessPal’s food database. If you crave something sweet, an entire pint of Halo Top Ice Cream should come as a revelation to you. It’s low-calorie, delicious, and mega nutritious. I eat a whole pint almost every day. No kidding.

That’s basically the whole primer for duplicating your own VR Fitness Challenge!

<p>Keep your diet in check to lose weight. </p>

Keep your diet in check to lose weight.

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