Can VR fitness replace the gym?

Woman doing high kick during exercise while wearing VR headset
(Image credit: Getty)

With the ubiquity of fitness games on the market, you might be wondering if the physical gym is obsolete. Why spend a large monthly sum on membership fees when you could be burning calories as you game? 

The same could be said of jogging; why invest in decent running shoes when you can break a sweat just as easily wearing one of the best VR headsets? Before you quit the gym or sell your adjustable dumbbells (opens in new tab), however, there are certain things you can only achieve through conventional fitness. While VR can provide great aerobic exercise (opens in new tab), it’s unlikely you’ll gain much strength or find yourself marathon-ready after a few months. Gaming isn’t quite there yet. 

Let’s not disregard VR entirely though, because as we all should know, exercise is more than training for an event or getting our bodies into shape. It’s a means of getting our mind into shape. 

If we exercise on a regular basis, we’re more likely to sleep, less likely to be stressed, and better equipped to deal with our daily trials. But the idea of “exercise” feels like a slog for many of us. After hours of work, looking after kids, and dealing with the stresses of life, it feels counterproductive to push ourselves even more. Our wind-down time, we feel, is to do things we actually enjoy, like reading, watching TV, playing videogames…

…which is where VR comes in handy; a means of gaming where we use more than our thumbs. Because we’re still gaming, still racking up points and beating our opponents, it won’t feel like the chore of exercise. 

Screenshot from the VR game Beat Saber

(Image credit: Beat Games)

Let’s look at Beat Saber (opens in new tab), a rhythm game released by Czech developer Beat Games in 2019. Fans of Just Dance and Guitar Hero will understand the format; a stream of incoming shapes that represent a move, or combination of moves, in sync with the music, that the player has to act out. 

Beat Saber is particularly exciting because the virtual realm allows us to dance with lightsabers – an activity we never thought we’d do in our lifetime. Headset on, motion controller in each hand, but in the virtual world we’re duel wielding lightsabers like Anakin at the end of Attack of the Clones, as we slash our way through incoming blocks of color. We actually ranked Beat Saber as our top pick of the best VR fitness apps and games earlier this year, so you should definitely check it out.

Another great rhythm game is Pistol Whip (opens in new tab). It combines rhythm with shooting; you navigate a violent world blasting the bad guys away like John Wick. While shooting doesn’t sound particularly taxing on the cardio system, it’s the dodging that takes it out of you. As you dodge the bullets (like another Keanu Reeves character), the amount of squatting and lunging requited is insane. 

Pistol Whip VR

(Image credit: Cloudhead Games)

If music and rhythm isn’t your thing, and you’re more of a brawny type, then we recommend the ridiculously fun Gorn. It’s a gladiator sim with violence so over-the-top you’ll be laughing as you sweat. Finding yourself in an arena much like Maximus in the 2000 film, you face off numerous opponents with whatever weapon you can find, or your bare hands. Using the latter, it must be said, you can lift up your opponent and physically tear off their arm, leg, or head. While this isn’t for everybody, if you like that sort of thing, you can make it into a great workout if you have the space. 

There are also VR games that set out to make you fit. You’d think this genre defies the objective of accidental exercise through gaming. But if we take a closer look, these titles are more than just fitness routines in game form. Like Ring Fit Adventure and Wii Sports before it, many of them are visual delights with smooth gameplay and an addictive gamified system.

FitXR VR fitness game/app

(Image credit: FitXR)

FitXr (opens in new tab) is, in our view, the best option if you want a variety of workouts and a lot of fun. What separates VR workouts like this and a Joe Wicks routine, is the fact we’re in a virtual world and the laws of physics don’t apply. In one of the routines in FitXr, we find ourselves punching incoming blocks, ducking under ledges, and dodging other obstacles – all the while accompanied by an encouraging personal trainer and a thumping soundtrack. This weird and wacky world is unlike any training class in the physical world, because, well, it’s not physically possible there. If you can name a training class that incorporates smashing incoming debris like Hulk, or dodging it like Spiderman, we’ll be impressed. 

What we get from games like this, that we don’t get from the gym, is being kept on our toes by way of testing our reaction time. In the gym, there’s a chance we’ll sit on the bench between sets, take our phone out, open social media, and unintentionally scroll away ten minutes of workout time. It’s a common occurrence. Even with the cardio machines, it’s possible to drift off into a daydream as we half-heartedly step, cycle, or row in the same sort of direction we scroll on our phones – a vague nowhere, with no clear objective or ending.

To answer the question of can VR fitness replace the gym? – as you’ve seen, it depends on what you’re looking for. We can’t guess where VR fitness will be in a few years, but, at the moment, the gym is the only place for a certain type of strength training. There’s also the social side of any fitness classes you might attend and, you might be one of those fabled humans who actually enjoy the gym. 

But if you fancy getting out of breath, getting your heartrate up, and getting those feel-good chemicals working in your brain – you could do a lot worse than VR. In fact, it’s one of the most exciting ways to do that. 

If you're looking to improve your VR fitness experience, check out our list of the best VR fitness accessories to help make your virtual workout session more comfortable and rewarding. We're also exploring other areas that VR could change our lives,
like in this piece looking at whether it's possible to work in VR?

Freelance contributor

Ben is a writer based in sunny Bangor, North Wales, where he completed his bachelor's and master's degrees in English and creative writing, respectively. He has written about gaming and tech for TechRadar, The Gamer, The Loadout, and GAMINGbible. When not writing or exercising, he should be trudging through his game and book backlog. But he's probably asleep.