When you look at almost any study about the physical and mental benefits of video games, you'll find a reference to "exergames". Games like Wii Sports, and Just Dance on the Kinect - the kinds of games specifically designed to get you active.
Even though is wasn't explicitly designed to be, Virtual Reality is now considered a part of this group - thanks to a University of Sydney study revealing just how much physical exertion the games require. (Spoiler: sometimes it's a lot).
Conducted by researchers from the University's School of Information Technologies, the study examined the physical exertion of a wide range of participants – including those who exercised regularly and others who did not exercise at all – while playing four VR games already on the market: Fruit Ninja VR, Hot Squat, Holopoint and Portal Stories: VR.
The researchers say each game was chosen to provide a different form of physical interaction for participants. Fruit Ninja mainly works the arms; Hot Squats works the large leg and gluteal muscles needed to squat; and Holopoint works a mix of muscles. The fourth game, Portal Stories: VR, is a puzzle game requiring relatively little physical movement.
Participants' heart rates were monitored while playing each game for sessions of between five and 10 minutes, then compared to "regular exercise".
The results showed, as expected, Portal Stories had the lowest exertion measures and the heart-rate score was equal to very light activity. Fruit Ninja's maximum heart-rate score was equal to light exercise, like walking, Holopoint's was equal to moderate intensity/dancing and Hot Squats's fell in the heavy/running category. That's right - you can play VR instead of going for a run.
The participants in the study said they could "really feel" their workouts the next day - especially in the gluteal muscles and legs. That's even the ones who exercise regularly. The study also revealed that the more engaging a VR games is, the less a person feels like they are exercising – even when they are working up a sweat.
"The participants' main response was enjoyment of playing the games, rather than feeling it was exercise – this shows that virtual reality games have the potential to make exercise feel fun, engaging and relatively easy," said study co-author and Professor of Computer Science Judy Kay.
"National guidelines recommend exercise at least 2.5 to 5 hours a week. However, many people find it hard to achieve these recommended levels. Virtual reality games offer a way to overcome this, because they can be motivating and convenient," added study co-author Soojeong Yoo, a PhD candidate in the School of Information Technologies.
The researchers say an exercise rating system for VR games, in addition to incorporating heart-rate measures into future gaming titles would be a great way for people to see their actual exertion levels. They also recommended VR games could also be made more challenging, if needed, by wearing weights.