My First 80 Days of VR for Exercise

Three months ago, during my first Think Week, I realized that consistently working out would meaningfully improve my long term health and happiness.

After a quick overview of the research on exercise and longevity, 45 minutes of cardio per day seemed optimal.

But what method would enable me to work out consistently?

  • Previously I'd built up a Tiny Habit of running ~5 minutes per day, but knee pain was preventing me from expanding that habit further.
  • Because of COVID-19, any form of gym work was also no longer an option.
  • I'd noticed that playing certain VR games would lead me to work up a sweat without noticing; clearly, I had to give this method a try.

Fast forward 80 days since my Think Week, and I've not missed a single VR workout day.

I now look forward to waking up and getting my heart beating, working up a sweat, and generally feeling better throughout the day. Also:

  • My HRV (a measure of health) has increased (from 32 to 49 -> +53%)
  • My resting heart rate has decreased (from 57 to 49 -> -14%)

My Oura Ring stats from before and after starting VR workouts:

Given the above benefits, I'd be hooked for the long haul. However, during my first 80 days of VR I stumbled upon something even more surprising.

I've discovered that VR serves me well as a digital dojo -- an ideal place in the digital world to practice skills that can be applied in everyday life.

digital dojo [dij-i-tl doh-joh]

noun, plural di·gi·tal do·jos.

1. A place in the digital world to practice skills that are applicable in everyday life.

Specifically, I've found that, so far, my digital dojo has helped me cultivate:

  • Calm under pressure
  • Persistence in the face of difficulty, and
  • A stronger growth mindset

In the following sections, I'll cover:

  • VR's benefits over other exercise methods
  • How I use VR as a digital dojo
  • Specific details around how I use VR

Let's dive in!

VR: It's Fun, Efficient, Safe, and Bleeding Edge

Working out is important in itself, but 45 minutes a day is a meaningful time investment -- equivalent to almost 7 40-hour workweeks every year.

Given such a meaningful time investment, I wanted to make sure I got as many side benefits as possible.

Side note: Squeezing the most you can out of activities is one of my favorite principles which I call “make activities two-for-one,” stolen from Nate Eliason's blog post here.

The main benefits I've seen aside from getting a great workout:

It’s Fun

VR games make working out fun; as we get older, many of us tend to play less, become more serious -- but it doesn't have to be that way.

I've found that I get so immersed in a game that I won't even notice that I'm sweating. The challenge and fun of the games keep me excited to continue working out every day.

It’s Efficient

The games I tend to play are fast-paced, intense, and require a level of concentration similar to that of a competitive sport; the downside of a team competitive sport is that you have to travel to a central location and coordinate times with others.

In my case, I can fire up my VR headset whenever works for me, and be playing in less than a minute.

It’s Safe

My wife and I have decided to err on the side of caution with COVID-19. Keeping away from public spaces or exercise equipment helps with this.

It’s Bleeding edge

My 25-year direction is to "facilitate innovation." I believe VR is going to be a big part of the future.  Staying in touch with VR helps me understand and consequently be more able to shape that future.

VR as Digital Dojo

Much to my surprise, VR has served as a great digital dojo for practicing skills and ways of thinking that can later be applied in everyday life, such as calm under pressure, persistence in the face of difficulty, and a growth mindset.

The repeatability of VR makes it a great digital dojo

You can play a specific Pistol Whip level on "Easy" over and over, and the environment will be the same each time. This means you're unavoidably confronted with your physical, psychological, and skill gaps until you overcome them.

As you become more proficient at the level you're currently on, you can crank the difficulty up just a little bit:

  • That may mean turning the difficulty from "Medium" to "Hard" and starting again from level 1.
  • It might mean tweaking some settings to turn the auto-aim feature off.
  • It also might mean making some smaller adjustments like using one's non-dominant hand with boxing until its dexterity and power are close to that of your dominant hand.

Learning happens by riding the edge of your comfort zone, and the highly-repeatable nature of many VR games helps you do this much more than you can without conventional sports.

When you've turned up the difficulty level by a small increment, you'll be confronted with your next bottleneck to winning. In a repeatable environment, it makes sense to attack your main bottleneck until it's no longer a bottleneck.

To give an example from my own experience -- being calm during sports such as MMA has never been my strong suit. When playing VR games, I noticed this same tendency to panic, and it became increasingly clear it was holding me back.

One day, I stumbled upon a way to summon an extreme sense of forward-facing calm using what I later realized has been called an alter ego. After seeing the resulting profound transformation in my level of play, it became even more clear that the lack of calm was the main bottleneck holding me back in my VR games.

Since learning how to “activate” an alter ego, I've focused on honing the ability to turn on and maintain the calm-based alter ego on demand.

Soon I will be satisfied that staying calm during an intense game is no longer my bottleneck. At that time, I will continue to crank up the difficulty, and a new bottleneck will appear. Rinse and repeat!

Side note: Continually and systematically working on bottlenecks has wide applicability outside the scope of this blog post. The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt is highly recommended reading on this topic.

The mindsets that VR has helped me reinforce

Aside from helping me develop the ability to stay calm under pressure, VR has been great for increasing the twin tendencies to persist and grow in the face of difficulties; both of these complement each other nicely.

In general, when you repeatedly experience overcoming obstacles after a struggle, it builds the self-faith that underpins psychological resilience.

One can overcome some obstacles through sheer "muscling it," which is appropriate in some circumstances. In most situations, persisting after an initial difficulty is an admirable and useful trait.

For example, when boxing, I noticed my tendency to get psychologically deflated after getting my ears boxed in, in Round 1 of Thrill of The Fight. In order to bounce back for Rounds 2 and 3, I had to learn what ways of thinking to adopt in order to come back strong.  In this particular case, I learned specific attitudes to “muscle through” despite difficulty.

However, in some cases, "muscling through" simply doesn't cut it. You may not overcome an opponent or level in a given day, and continuing to hit your head against a virtual wall isn't going to help much.

This is where taking a skill-based path to overcome an obstacle is the right approach. I generally use the bottleneck-attacking approach, outlined above, to guide my skill improvement process.

As you continually attack and overcome growth bottlenecks, you’ll begin to find that previously difficult situations seem shockingly easy. That feels great, and naturally leads to an appetite for more growth, which ultimately reinforces what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”.  Those with growth mindsets tend to be more persistent, adaptive, and ultimately, successful.

We experience opportunities to practice and reinforce the mindsets of persisting and growing in our daily lives, but the repeatability of VR games makes bottlenecks obvious and growth cycles rapid, making it an ideal training ground.

Since beginning to use VR as a digital dojo, I’ve found myself bringing new skills and mindsets into my daily life. For example:

  • I can bring a sense of forward-facing calm more easily into difficult situations
  • I’ve found muscling through temporary setbacks is more often a reflex
  • I’m generally more excited about growing, likely in part because of daily small wins in VR

My Personal VR setup

I wake up at 5:30, and do some deep work; at 7:15 an alarm goes off, which reminds me to fire up my Oculus Quest and start my VR workout.

I clear out my workout space and make sure my cats aren't in the main play area.

  • Mia is absolutely fearless, so she needs to be moved
  • Umrao slinks off as soon he sees me clearing the play area

Of note: Generally, more space = a more vigorous workout.

My favorite games

I tend to like games where working out is a side effect of the fast-paced gameplay. I've tried some workout-focused games and they haven't really done it for me.  It felt like punishment instead of pleasure.

At the same time, I've tested many fun games that turned out to not be vigorous enough to get a great workout with. Thankfully Oculus has a decent return policy.

Below are my 4 favorite games for working out.

Thrill of The Fight

Description: Boxing without the concussions.
Intensity: Very high. Most physically intense game I've found.
Notes: As I find myself improving at boxing in this game, I wonder how much will apply to real-life boxing. My guess is that punching and blocking habits will have improved, but I will have probably picked up some bad habits with footwork and balance.

Pistol Whip

Description: First-person shooter to a soundtrack.  Incredible experience.
Intensity: High.  It’ll sneak up on you.
Notes: I've found this is exceptional for practicing my alter ego for calm under pressure.

Ninja Legends

Description: Fight multiple opponents at once, as a ninja.
Intensity: High, especially with Endless Mode for extended cardio.

Audio Trip

Description: If I may take liberties: Guitar Hero for VR.
Intensity: Medium-High; slightly less intense than the other games. I like to use it for enjoyable cool-downs.
Notes: Psychedelic, soulful, immersive environments and music while you compete. More intense than the well-known Beat Saber, which I find fun but not vigorous enough for a workout. The makers of Audio Trip are a married couple with a great story.

In Closing

Exercising in Virtual Reality has been a great experience for me, with some unexpected benefits.

As VR is adopted more widely, I hope adults and kids alike will begin to leverage it more for its many benefits, including fitness.

XR (Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality) is in its infancy; there are some massive opportunities on the horizon for improving communication, collaboration, innovation, and quality of life for humans, through XR.

However, an ideal XR will look and operate differently than 99%+ of the population is imagining. I intend to write more on this, soon, so subscribe to get updates!

If anyone is considering trying VR, or has had experience already with VR, I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Thanks to Nina Menezes, and Ilya Tregubov for reading drafts of this.