Subscriber Stories: Combatting Depression and High Blood Pressure With Virtual Reality

This week , I met 46 year old Emma, from the UK. She has been using virtual reality as a means to lower blood pressure, as well as to combat depression. I met Emma through the VRFit and Virtually Healthy Community groups on Facebook.

Emma owns the Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S. She has been using VR for 6 months, but says the last 3 months she has been using it more intensively. Her main reasons for using virtual reality as an exercise tool are to lower blood pressure and help with depression. Both of which she attributes to a previously sedentary lifestyle.

“I’m more focused on my blood pressure (than weight loss). I just don’t find it helpful personally to focus on my weight as a number.  I focus on how I feel and how my clothes fit.  My blood pressure was very high a few months ago, and I have got it down to more of a high normal range most of the time now.  I’ve also come off anti-depressants.  This has been mostly through exercise.  I do watch what I eat a bit, but haven’t made major changes.  My diet wasn’t terrible anyway.  My main issue was sedentary lifestyle, stress, and depression, and obviously exercise helps with both”, she says.

To accomplish this, Emma spends an average of 6 hours per week working out in VR. Her top choices are BoxVR and Beat Saber for workout, and Guided Tai Chi for cool down. Other games she uses are Creed, Ninja Legends, and Racket NX. She also uses weights while playing. She uses a Samsung Galaxy Active smartwatch to track her calories. According to the watch’s tracking, she burns about 400-450 calories per hour.

“On Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes Fridays, I warm up with a Beat Saber track, do about an hour in BoxVR, then about another 20 minutes on Beat Saber.  That’s usually all with a weighted vest, wrist weights and ankle weights.  I try and move my legs a lot, e.g. between music tracks, as obviously VR is more focused on the arms because they are tracked.  Then I’ll do about 20 minutes in other physical games (without weights), and try to vary this, followed by 5-10 minutes on Guided Tai Chi.  On Wednesdays I do 30-45 minutes in BoxVR, 15-20 minutes in Beat Saber and a few minutes in Guided Tai Chi.  I don’t bother with weights, for quicker set-up, as I have less time on Wednesdays.”

When I asked Emma about her thoughts on VR compared to traditional workouts, she commented that the main difference is that she actually enjoys working out in VR. Whereas, with traditional workouts, it was never enjoyable. She says: “As an unathletic person (post puberty anyway) I had a miserable time in PE at school, and this left with me a lifelong aversion to organised sport and exercise in general.  I have a very long commute to work, which makes it difficult to get to a class, and I hate gyms even if I could get to one.  I’ve tried to get into exercise I can do alone and from home over the years: mainly aerobics DVDs and running, but basically I just find it very, very boring and resent spending my sparse leisure time doing it.  This makes it hard to keep it up.”

Emma has always been a gamer. Which she says is part of what added to her sedentary lifestyle. Being a gamer, though, virtual reality was a natural step for her. “The thing that is different about VR exercise is that I really enjoy it.  It’s fun.  I’m a gamer and it works for me.  I also notice that I work a lot harder than I ever did trying to get into exercise previously, due to the nature of VR and how it occupies the brain.”

Emma has seen several positive physical and non-physical results from using virtual reality as a fitness tool. “I’ve seen a reduction in my blood pressure, I’m feeling a lot happier, and I have a lot more energy.  I’m told I look better too.  My weight has stayed about the same to be honest, but I have better muscle tone, I’ve changed shape, and my skin is better. It definitely helps with depression and stress relief, as any exercise does if you can stick with it, but there is also the escapism element you don’t get with other forms of exercise.”

It is incredible that Emma has seen so many positive results from her VR workouts. Her story really does show that virtual reality is not ‘just for gaming’. People are seeing truly positive results from using it. We are still at the beginning of VR, too. I am sure the full potential of virtual reality in regard to health remains to be seen. As it becomes more popular, more and more people are considering giving it a try as a health and fitness option.

If you are thinking about trying virtual reality, Emma recommends that Beat Saber be the first game you play. “I think VR would probably work best for those who are not particularly inclined to exercise, and/or those who struggle to find the time and energy.  It makes exercise fun, and removes the trying to get out of the house element.  I’d suggest try and find somewhere you can have a go at Beat Saber because it’s an absolute joy to play, and easy to pick up.  I’m not sure how easy it is to find places to try it out at this point though, especially in the UK if you are not in a city.”

I also asked Emma what she would like to see in the future for VR. She says the main thing she would like is more unwired options for the Quest. The ease and quickness of set up is a huge draw, but the lack of unwired games is a drawback. She also would love to see more story games. Potentially something with a fantasy/sci-fi setting, that still require a lot of movement for exercise.

Emma would also like to see a headset specifically designed for exercise. “With current headsets it’s almost accidental that a growing community is using them for exercise.  They are not designed to deal with the associated hygiene issues.  There are solutions to help with this – mask, covers, etc – but it would be better is a headset were designed from the ground up with exercise in mind.  This would increase it’s possible therapeutic uses in general. The health and medical communities could start to use VR more widely.”

Emma is a great inspiration for those in the VR community. She is very happy to be a “reasonably early adopter of this technology”. She says that it is a very interesting community, and she is fascinated by all the potential for VR.

I asked Emma what keeps her motivated. Her reply: “I don’t want to go onto medication for my blood pressure or back onto anti-depressants.  Also, it’s fun and it makes me feel good!” Virtual reality has helped her to stick with her exercise, and to take her lifestyle from sedentary to active. This has kept her very motivated to continue.

It is so great to hear such an inspirational success story. Virtual reality has helped Emma with many things: lower blood pressure, higher energy, muscle tone, better skin. Not only that, it has helped her to relieve stress and help combat previously medicated depression. These are amazing results to see within the VR community. Thank you for sharing your story, Emma!

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