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Week 8: Husain's VR diary – I replaced my cardio workout with virtual reality

Let's get sweaty

I'm mostly a cardio guy at the gym. I usually hit up the elliptical because it's the easiest on the knees, but more recently I've taken up some running. Whereas 10 minutes of running was once enough to make me want to heave, I can now run 5km in my sleep. Well, perhaps not quite, but I've made progress.

So I wondered: would I be able to replace my cardio work in VR? After all, that's the entire point of this series, to see if I can replace regular things I do with virtual reality. Plus, virtual reality is one of the few mediums where your body is required to move – especially when playing a game.

The realisation truly struck me when playing Robo Recall, a game where you're frantically trying to murder an army of robots coming at you from all directions. You're dodging, grabbing, pulling guns from your back and tearing robots limb from limb. It's tiring work.

Read this: Henching inside of Black Box's VR gym

The problem with Robo Recall is that it feels like a game, which makes it difficult for me to exert the effort I want to exercise. I just want to find the minimum way to get to the next level, rather than maximize how hard I'm working out. I decided to try out HoloBall, which is basically a giant, 3D version of air hockey. You get two paddles and a ball, and you've got to smack that ball in all sorts of directions in an effort to get it past the computer gatekeeper.

I'm always a bit self-conscious about playing around in VR. What if someone sees me? And look, it's warranted: on several occasions during this series my brother has caught me VR-ing and made fun of me for it.

HoloBall does a good job of moving you around. You need to bend and move to hit the ball in various directions. I'd duck, dive, dip, slap at the air and do it all again. I was moving, I was breathing harder, but did I feel like I was exercising? Maybe if you consider a brisk walk exercise, sure.

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I needed something a little more intense, something that would keep me moving – nay, something that felt more like a sport. I'd rather look at simulated people and things than a Tron-like world. That's another good thing about running – you can do it out in nature in the fresh air. So I turned to the VR Institute of Health and Exercise, an independent organisation set up to study the fitness impact of virtual reality. They then compare that to "normal" activities, like how many calories you burn per minute while walking, or swimming, or rowing. A lot of the games were rated in the range of HoloBall, about four to six calories per minute, so I decided to look for something more extreme.

Maybe something like Holopoint, an archery game which has about 13 to 15 calories per minute – making it about the level of swimming. However, and no offense to you Hawkeyes out there, the idea of putting my arms in that bow-and-arrow position for long periods of time really irked me. There was also Thrill Of The Fight, a boxing game with the highest – and most difficult – rating from the VR Health Institute: 15+ calories per minute.

Well. Knockout League kicked my ass.

That was maybe a bit much for me. When I work out, I need to be eased into my routine, not thrown in at the deep end. I need to get used to what I'm doing or else I'll throw up my hands and quit. So I aimed a little lower and went for Knockout League, a boxing title rated about the same intensity as Holopoint.

I booted up Knockout League pretty confident that I would be able to handle what this silly, cartoony looking game could throw at me. I mean the first boxer was named Tri Tip and had a concerning love for beef. The second was named Barrage. I'd punch in the air, dodge a little and win. How hard could this be?

Well. Knockout League kicked my ass. I was so winded after a single match with Tri Tip that I was almost gasping for air. I could feel my chest pounding hard, just as it pounds when you really push yourself to the limit. My hands were on my hips, my head was looking down and I tried to suck in as much air as possible.

I thought my heart rate must have shot up to 180 beats per minute or so, which is typically where I sit when I really push myself to the limit. When I checked later on my Apple Watch, it had only gone up to 95. Why the heck was I so winded?

My best guess is the headset. Headsets don't block off your breathing totally, but they do make it more difficult to breathe through your nose as easily as you would without it on. It gets warm and your face gets sweaty. You just feel icky and uncomfortable, and after two sessions I needed to just get the headset off my head and cool down my face for a bit.

So every time thereafter that I used Knockout League to exercise, I had to take off the headset to cool down. There's a reason why workout clothes use light materials that are breathable. Your body is cooling down in every direction, but in VR your face is locked off and it makes you even hotter than you usually would be.

Knockout League and HoloBall were fun ways to exercise and to get my cardio on more specifically, but I'd much rather run at a treadmill for an hour and keep my face free, breathing in as much air as possible, rather than suffocating my face in a headset.

Husain's VR diary: The story so far

Week 1: Learning to live in virtual reality

Week 2: Learning to become a regular Picasso

Week 3: Around the world in virtual reality

Week 4: Working from a different reality

Week 5: Finding peace in another reality

Week 6: Trying to conquer my fears

Week 7: I tried to replace cinema and failed

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