Just a decade ago, "virtual reality" was still something that existed more in the realm of science. Sure, there had been attempts at VR video games in the past, and there were always some cutting-edge scientific efforts exploring this technology. However, over the past few years, virtual reality headsets have gone from being prototypes on paper to real devices that have ended up in the hands of countless consumers. These include models such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, with more VR companies springing up since. At first, the primary focus for these technologies was on video games. However, as these products mature, more people have turned their attention to other areas.

Fitness and exercise are two of those areas now receiving more attention in the context of virtual reality. Could VR be the wave of the future that will transform the way we relate to our exercise? What are the potential benefits of using VR for fitness, and are there any drawbacks? Though the answers to these questions aren't entirely clear yet, what is certain is that VR is here to stay. Let's consider a few of the ways VR has begun pushing the fitness industry forward into the future.

Virtual reality can be a gateway to exercise for inactive individuals

It’s part of a phenomenon we saw first way back when the Nintendo Wii originally released. Because VR games require their participants to get up and move around in a physical space, they quickly find they're engaging in far more physical activity than usual. Despite what perhaps might be their usual aversion to exercise, the incentive provided by the game encourages them to keep moving. The result is that over time they become less inclined to avoid physical activity. As a result, it is easier to open the door to further exercise opportunities.

As technology plays an increasingly more significant role in our lives, using it to make activities such as exercise more attractive will become more important. Disguising exercise in the form of a game that requires strenuous and rapid movement is an excellent application that can excite kids and adults alike. That's just the beginning of the story for virtual reality and exercise, though.

"Gamification" opens doors to more engaging fitness fun

If disguising exercise in the trappings of a game works well, what happens if you drop the pretence? Some developers have turned their attention to not only translating sports and fitness activities into a VR world but also "gamifying" exercise in the process. In other words, they transform your workout into a game in which you can earn points, level up, and brag to your friends about your progress. By placing an artificial progression system over the top of exercise, it is much easier to motivate people to work out harder and train longer. With multiple avenues of research into this practice, it's safe to say we'll see more game-based exercise programs emerging over the coming years. Think of a virtual cycling program where every time you complete another five kilometres, you earn experience points to spend on outfitting and upgrading your virtual avatar. It could be a lot of fun!

Innovators look to create VR-based fitness classes

Others have taken a more traditional tack, hoping to import exercise wholesale into a virtual environment. Personal trainers and software developers have banded together to create VR settings that they can use to encourage, motivate, and excite students of fitness classes. Some have even chosen to work towards creating entire gyms centred solely around using the latest in virtual reality gear.

Personal trainers play a vital role in developing the fitness of many individuals, and they can help teach proper form to avoid injury. However, they can be expensive, and there is often more demand for their services than there are practitioners. Virtual reality could help to end this shortage through the creation of digital programs that walk participants through lessons. When they take off the headset, they can use what they've learned in real-world workouts. The applications for trainers and gyms could be limitless.

Pairing VR with traditional exercise equipment

Working out on equipment is excellent for people who don't have the time to go outdoors every day or for whom other exercise carries a high risk of injury. However, anyone who has spent more than a few hours on a spin machine, rowing machine, or another type of equipment can tell you — it gets boring! What if, when you strapped into your rowing machine, you also donned a headset that made you think you were gliding across the glassy surface of a beautiful bay? That's what many companies in the VR sector want to achieve now. By creating both machine-specific VR experiences and software that pairs well with exercise equipment generally, we'll gain an easy way to wipe away the boredom that usually makes us quit a session early. While graphics are still rudimentary, visual fidelity should increase markedly with successive generations.

Cyclists have begun training in virtual reality

More specifically, cyclists have taken a keen interest in VR as it offers them a way to traverse many paths and trails they couldn't access otherwise. Some developers, such as VirZOOM, have created exercise bikes that transport you across the world while you pedal. They've even begun to miniaturise their tech so that you can turn any old workout bike into a VR portal to somewhere else. Have you ever wanted to challenge yourself by riding the Tour de France route? Now you can!

Combined with other static bike technology, VR could eventually enable indoor cycling exercise that offers as many physical challenges as riding outdoor. Terrain variations, headwinds and tailwinds, and more could all have an impact on the way the bike responds to your mechanical input. When you see a daunting hill in front of you, for example, the bike could ramp up the difficulty and make it that much harder to pedal.

Sports training takes on a new look

Strapping on a headset and slipping into a virtual world for training isn't just one of the possible applications for personal trainers, it’s something that's already happening for professional sports teams. Some American football players in the NFL, for example, participate in a program that allows them to practice virtual drills under the pressure of the oncoming linebackers they see in VR. Each player receives challenges tailor-made to help them address their weaknesses while shoring up their strengths. Because it all takes place in VR, there's no need for a coach to split his or her attention among many players at once. Companies now work to create custom training regimens based on the needs of pro sports players. It offers a way to continue practising essential drills indoors when the weather outside would prevent activity. Look to see other sports adopting VR to provide practice opportunities away from traditional gyms.

Are there drawbacks to virtual reality training?

It's obvious that there is a wealth of innovation taking place in this sector, and that virtual reality has the potential to transform the way we work out. Is it all good, though? Is there anything that should concern us about relying on technology so much to help us improve our health? Like with anything, there are some caveats. For starters, VR gear is still costly. Getting it out into the hands of the masses in any way that could be game-changing requires cheaper and more accessible hardware. Meanwhile, we must also be careful to strike a balance between VR exercise and "real life" fitness. It's still important to get out in the sun and the fresh air, after all! Users must be careful to avoid turning VR into a "crutch" that they rely upon exclusively for motivation.

Will you be exercising in virtual reality soon?

While many of the components of VR technology are still in their formative stages, we all know just how quickly an evolution can take place. With cycling, running, and other activities starting to shift into a virtual space, there's no telling exactly where the industry will go next. We can hope for a positive impact, though, as anything that motivates individuals to get up and get active is worth a closer look. While it won't be a "magic bullet" that helps people begin to make lifestyle changes overnight, VR fitness could open the door to more accessible ways to exercise.

This article was written for Sporta Fitness, where you can shop for all your exercise clothing, cycling gear and even an American football!