Virtual workouts have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Can the trend continue? : shots

Monson, Linda Monson’s youngest grandson, 2-year-old Daniel Gomez, said as he tried on an Oculus headset in her yard in Berlin, Connecticut. Playing different virtual reality games has become a regular activity for her family on Sundays.

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Monson, Linda Monson’s youngest grandson, 2-year-old Daniel Gomez, said as he tried on an Oculus headset in her yard in Berlin, Connecticut. Playing different virtual reality games has become a regular activity for her family on Sundays.

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At the height of the pandemic, when going to the gym wasn’t an option, millions of people began exploring virtual workouts from home for the first time. Many of them now say they will not return.

While this is clearly a boon for the companies developing these systems, it has also helped people who don’t feel comfortable in the gym or don’t have time to get there.

Linda Monson, 56, lives in Berlin, Connecticut, and has worked a desk job from home since the initial COVID lockdown in 2020. “I’ve been packing on the pounds,” she admits.

Monson has never been a gym person. “I’m socially awkward,” she says. “I worry about going out. Maybe…I walk the gym and sign up for a membership and then not go.”

Left: Linda Monson shows a photo of herself about a year ago. Right: Munson lost nearly 50 pounds through a combination of a healthy diet, walking, and a supernatural virtual reality app.

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In 2021, she was hospitalized with COVID and diagnosed with diabetes. When her doctor told her she needed to focus more on her health, she said she had tried before and couldn’t do it. “Well, we’ll just wait until you have a heart attack,” the doctor said.

That was her wake-up call. “I cried in the office,” Monson says, then vows to prove him wrong. I started walking and cut out the fast food. One day, her son brought home a VR headset called the Oculus Quest.

While fiddling with it, Monson discovered popular fitness app Supernatural, and was addicted. Supernatural lets you box, swing your arms toward goals, meditate or stretch with a trainer in front of you and in your ear as you transition into popular music. Plus you stand in a 3D view of exotic locations like the moon or the edge of an Ethiopian volcano.

Linda Monson, 56, trains wearing the Oculus Quest in her living room. “It got me from a low point to being energized, happy, and feeling fulfilled,” Monson says.

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Linda Monson, 56, trains wearing the Oculus Quest in her living room. “It got me from a low point to being energized, happy, and feeling fulfilled,” Monson says.

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Linda Monson, 56, takes a deep breath after using Supernatural, a virtual reality fitness app. Monson says that many of the superusers, including herself, are posting selfies in a Facebook group after the workout and cheering each other on in the comments.

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Linda Monson, 56, takes a deep breath after using Supernatural, a virtual reality fitness app. Monson says that many of the superusers, including herself, are posting selfies in a Facebook group after the workout and cheering each other on in the comments.

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The Supernatural membership currently offers hundreds of workouts and costs $179 per year, after a two-week free trial. The Oculus Quest headset needed to access it is $299. A few other workout apps designed for VR headsets (FitXR, Holofit) are a bit cheaper. In contrast, the average cost of a gym membership in 2021 was $507, according to an analysis by sneaker review site Run Repeat.

It’s worth it, Monson says. “When you finish one [workout], you’re tired, you’re sweaty, but you think, “I could do something else.” Jumping into the rhythm is addictive, she says, and ‘a lot of fun. “Also, no one is judging you. I’m at home, and I can be weird, and that’s okay.”

Monson lost nearly 50 pounds in a year, didn’t have to take diabetes medication, and can now play with her seven active grandchildren.

I have a lot of energy, Linda Monson, 56, jumps on a trampoline in her yard with her grandchildren, Christopher Gomez, 8, (left) and Andrew Gomez, 11.

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I have a lot of energy, Linda Monson, 56, jumps on a trampoline in her yard with her grandchildren, Christopher Gomez, 8, (left) and Andrew Gomez, 11.

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Jessica Davis, a therapist in Burbank, California, has worked from home since the pandemic began. Davis preaches the mental health benefits of regular exercise, and she’s living it up too. She is a lover of bike riding in the Peloton, and she reached her 800th ride on her 40th birthday this year. Davis was a regular member of the cycling class before COVID, but her husband bought her the bike at the start of the lockdown.

Peloton comes with an app subscription and a screen that lets you ride with thousands of others in a virtual classroom with a live instructor, but it also offers running and other equipment-free workouts. It’s not as immersive as virtual reality, but it has many of the same elements. A full membership is currently $39 a month and a bike is about $2,000. You can find a used one for a lower price, and the company starts a rental program.

“It was a source of comfort and convenience [from pandemic stress,]”You saved my ass,” says Davis. The bike is in her dining room, and she uses it every day because she still works remotely. “It gives me freedom with my schedule.”

Research shows that this type of flexibility is key to sticking to an exercise routine.

During the pandemic, Jessica Davis says, Peloton has been “a source of comfort and relief.” The bike is in her dining room, and she uses it every day because she still works remotely.

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During the pandemic, Jessica Davis says, Peloton has been “a source of comfort and relief.” The bike is in her dining room, and she uses it every day because she still works remotely.

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Another important part of maintaining a routine is sharing your joy and pain with others. While it may seem that people who embrace the virtual world of exercise are working alone, many of them are socializing on the Peloton and Paranormal Facebook pages.

Some write about their brushes with cancer or depression, many post sweaty selfies, and nearly all comments are positive.

“It’s a place like no other on the Internet,” says Jane Gregg, 50, of Eugene, OR. Transitioning female, Greg is back in a fitness routine after years of a sedentary lifestyle driving a commercial truck. I wrote about my trip [on the Supernatural page] And they only received full support.”

“You can get there and say something like, ‘You hit 100,000 points today,’ and people will know what you’re talking about,” Munson says.

The companies that designed these fitness programs have attracted millions of new members during COVID.

Jessica Davis shoes are made on a Peloton bike.

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Jessica Davis shoes are made on a Peloton bike.

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Tom Cortez, Peloton co-founder and chief production officer, says the company went public in September 2019 with less than 1 million members, and now has 6.6 million. He credits the community of active members as a major reason for the growth.

Chris Milk, co-founder of Supernatural, which launched in 2020 at the start of the US COVID lockdowns, has a background in virtual reality and films and has produced videos for some of the superstars. He says he was surprised and overwhelmed by the social engagement and emotional reactions from the supercommunity. I’ve never gotten the ‘This Kanye West video’ comment before, Milk says.

So what will keep people working by default now that the world has opened up, and with it, exercise options?

Supernatural lets you box, swing your arms toward goals, meditate or stretch with a coach in front of you as you transition into popular music.


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Milk says it encourages super members and coaches to interact with each other on social media, and is exploring new features like adding knee goals and the option to virtually exercise with other people in your headset in real time.

Peloton will be adding new features as well, and is said to be looking to expand into the video game space as it looks to keep users engaged and attract new features in the future.

While VR seemed designed for teens to play immersive video games, fitness apps seem to be the gateway to a broader audience (read: older, more affluent ones) who might not be comfortable in a traditional gym.

“If fitness turns you down, you’re welcome,” Milk says.

While gyms will likely always have loyal members who desire flexibility, those who have found they don’t always fit in seem happy to ride, duck, and pack their way to fitness in their living rooms with a little help from technology .

April Fulton is a former editor at NPR’s Office of Science who lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter Tweet embed.


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