VR Boosts Workouts by Unexpectedly Reducing Pain During Exercise

If you don't see your forearms shake with exhaustion, you think they're less exhausted.


If you walk in on someone exercising with with a VR headset on on, they might look pretty ridiculous. Perhaps you’d silently judge them for what might seem like random, awkward movements. If this describes you, a study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise may make you regret that snap judgment: The findings suggest that VR can actually play a powerful role in exercise performance, helping people push through physical discomfort.

In the wider world of VR-related exercise, companies like Virzoom have constructed elaborate scenarios — lassoing bandits in the Wild West, riding Pegasus — but the VR game used in this study wasn’t that much fun: It was an exact recreation of the actual lab, right down to the bland, gray walls. T

Images from the experiment's very boring VR game 

What the researchers from the University of Kent in England lacked in imagination, they made up for with results. The study’s authors found that participants who exercised while wearing a Samsung Galaxy Gear VR headset lasted roughly one minute longer on average than control groups during a “continuous pain task” — essentially a test in which participants held a dumbbell stationary for as long as they could. The VR subjects lasted 5.34 minutes on average, in which the control group averaged 4.14 minutes. Interestingly, the VR group also reported 10 percent lower pain intensity scores during the task.

Study co-co-author Alexis Mauger, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at the University of Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, wasn’t surprised by this result because his previous research already showed that tricking your brain can be fairly low-tech:

“I conducted a study a few years ago where we used mirror box technique to fool subjects into thinking they were lifting a lighter or heavier mass than they actually were,” Mauger tells Inverse. “When we did this they experienced less or more pain respectively, and their performance was better or worse.”

VR, Mauger says, presented a natural next step for his research, by creating an immersive world that could further deceive the senses. But Mauger had another hypothesis that he thought might mitigate the power of VR, based on the idea of “private body consciousness” (PBC). In the paper, the team defines private body consciousness as “awareness of inner body sensations.” Mauger suspected that for people who were highly aware of how their body feels during exercise, VR might not provide much of a of a helpful distraction.

His trials proved this hypothesis totally wrong.

“As PBC is a measure of your own awareness of internal sensations, we would expect someone who is less aware would show a limited response to the VR intervention,” he says. “This was not the case, and VR was equally effective regardless of PBC. But, this is good news as it means that VR could be used more widely than we first thought.”

But while this finding suggests that VR plays an even more powerful role in exercise performance than he’d believed, Mauger also adds that it makes figuring out how VR games improve performance more challenging. The authors take a stab at this question question in the paper, suggesting that visual cues may play a role. In the VR game, subjects didn’t see their forearms shake with exhaustion or their hands flush with color as blood rushed to their aching biceps. They just saw a steady virtual arm holding a weight:

“Another possible explanation for why VR in our study was effective in reducing pain and perceived exertion was that the participants embodied the simulation and felt the virtual hand as their actual hand,” they write. “If this was the case, then VR concealed visual stimuli that could be perceived as signals of pain and exertion.”

Mauger says that his team could follow up on this idea this idea, but in the meantime, this study provide a rare example of a shortcut to sports performance enhancement. If you want to lift bigger, these early results indicate that it’s time to embrace the simulation.

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