Stuck at Home? Go on a (VR) Quest for Fitness

By Mike Romo

I stagger back and try to find my bearings, my chest heaving as my lungs suck in stale air.  My hips scream and my shoulder makes a clicking sound, but no matter; I need to press on.

I check my stance, and ready myself for the next drill. I look up and start cutting into the unending series of spheres shooting towards me, Depeche Mode blasts in my ears.

Twenty more grueling, sweat-drenched minutes of this and I am finally done.

At a time where everything in our lives has turned upside down because of COVID-19, not going to the gym and/or attending group fitness classes has been one of the biggest changes. Teachers and schools moved entirely online and supplies of free weights and kettlebells completely dried up as gym rats became bedroom/office/study/parking lot rats, doing whatever they can to keep in shape.

The pandemic has also given me a really good reason to actually use my Oculus Quest, which I bought late last year in a fit of “let’s give this VR thing a go, but maybe not tell all my friends because I feel kind of embarrassed about it, considering what a naysayer I’ve been about VR over the years”-ness.

You may have seen stories about how Oculus Quests have sold out in recent months. I’m not surprised — the Quest, no PC required, no wires, simple controls—is how VR really should be. Yes, you’re wearing a box on your head, but if you position it properly, it’s not that heavy, really—you look silly, but then again, you can’t see yourself, so “silly” is a bit existential at this rate, anyway.

Once you get used to the notion of wearing a box on your face, the real question emerges: what do I do with this thing?

I admit, at first I wasn’t sure. The demo stuff was cool, but clearly, you had to pay to really get a sense of what the platform was about. I dutifully bought Beat Saber and it was fine, pretty fun, but not fulfilling, really. Then I bought Star Wars: Vader Immortal and then it started to make sense: I really did feel like I was in a story. Sure, the 80/20 rule is in full force here—light seeps into the goggles on the bottom at certain angles and the mapping doesn’t always make sense—but heck, I was fighting Stormtroopers with a lighsaber! I was throwing rocks with the Force!

Eventually, even all that wasn’t really enough. Once you did the Star Wars game… you did the Star Wars game (all three paid chapters at $9.99 apiece!).  For months, the Quest sat in my office and I didn’t think about it.

But then we were told: stay inside. All the time. No cafes, no restaurants, no stores…and no gyms. I reluctantly bought my resistance bands, started taking online classes, and then figured I would dust off the Quest and play Beat Saber again —I remembered it being a fairly active game, maybe that would be fun? Then I looked at the store and saw great reviews for BoxVR.  I bought it, wincing a bit at the $29.99 price.

Almost immediately, BoxVR paid for itself. I used to take gym boxing classes (ie, shadow boxing, no contact) all the time, and this was basically that. Before too long, I was using it almost every day and actually felt like I was working out!  Flash forward a few weeks later when I read about Supernatural, which promised a “Peloton-like” experience with coaches taking you through the exercises—I was in.

Supernatural is hard. These are legitimately challenging fitness classes taught by actual real fitness instructors. I know this because I have been taking classes in the real word with one of the teachers, Ranier Pollard, for years (literally), and he doesn’t mess around. The app calibrates itself to your body through a series of stretches to make sure each movement pushes your body’s limits, and the actions go far beyond boxing-style target practice, these are full-body movements. It syncs with your iPhone and Apple Watch. It features actual licensed music. It costs $19.99 a month.  

What?!? $20 a month!? Yup… but how much did your gym cost?

So far, my only complaint about Supernatural is physical—I am terrible at side lunges and lunges are a big part of the routines, and they tend to hurt a lot if I over do it. However, that was also happening in “real” gym classes, so that’s just my problem, I guess. Other issues? Well, the movements takes a fair amount of room (you go around in a full circle), and it’s worth remembering that even though your body may have room…sweat can fly far.  (I don’t have a huge room, so I admit, I have to hang towels in front of my book shelf and I have started taking down the art on my walls. I am not proud to admit this.) That sweat is not confined to your personal space, either—it actually soaks into the device’s outer covering as well. I had to buy a silicon cover for the Quest, which protects it from moisture..but also makes it slippery. But I’m working out! According to my Apple Watch I burned 562 calories over two 26 minute sessions, which, hey, even if that’s not totally correct—I’ll take it.

Is the Quest for everyone? No, not yet. It’s too expensive ($399.99 for the 64GB version) for what’s basically a console that only one person at a time can enjoy, and I think you really need a bigger space than the recommend 6’x6’ to use it comfortably.  But I gotta tell ya, I have really appreciated it lately. I continue to find new fitness apps to try and now that you can hook it up to your PC without a special cable, I can play “real” VR games like Half Life:Alyx which is legit incredible (and warrants its own article).  

So, I am here to tell you: the Quest hardware, while not perfect, is really good. The fitness apps actually work and produce results. But the real question remains: what happens when the gyms open? Will BoxVR and Supernatural still be a part of my workout regimen?

Well..we’ll find out soon. Gyms open today in LA.

Mike Romo was the last kid on the block to get an Atari 2600, back when all the cool kids got Colecovision for Christmas. Since then, he’s kept up with gaming, at one point subscribing to several to PC Gaming magazines even though he didn’t have a PC or a console…just a Mac. Flash forward to the present day—Mike now works in videogames and actually has a legit gaming PC (his “rig”) and a current gen console…and zero time.

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