- Anna Maxted tried new virtual reality exercise machine Icaros
- Elite athlete Phil Heaton believes the machine provides fun and exercise
- Anna compared her experience with at home VR and immersive gym workouts
Flying across a mountain range, soaring over snowy peaks and crevasses like an eagle, I gasp in shock at the height and drama of the landscape. But soon the thrill takes over and I grip my controls, steering up into the cold blue sky. I barely notice that my biceps are shaking with the effort, and that I’m engaging every abdominal muscle to shift direction. This is fitness, virtual-reality style.
I’m actually earthbound, lying on my stomach on a machine named Icaros, playing a VR game called Flight. My shins and forearms rest on pads, my feet are wedged against a bar. But thanks to my headset, I’m immersed in another dimension, swooping through hoops.
Manoeuvring into the correct position in this fantasy world — by making the contraption tilt like a gyroscope — takes considerable muscle power. Yet, because of the focus needed to stay on course, and the exhilarating sensation of flight, I’m barely aware of the exertion.
After 15 minutes — which feels like five — I try another game. This time I’m underwater; stingrays and sharks swim beside me as I glide through more hoops. I don’t want to fail.
Anna Maxted (pictured) tested a series of the latest virtual reality fitness gadgets
Phil Heaton, consultant orthopaedic surgeon and elite athlete, is supervising my simulated adventures at his home gym in Lincolnshire. It’s such fun I’m sorry to stop.
This isn’t usually the case with exercise. And that’s the point. The prospect of watching Bargain Hunt in the gym while you lift weights isn’t appealing to most people. Whereas, says Mr Heaton, this machine ‘provides fun and exercise in one dose’.
‘We need more people to move,’ he adds. ‘This creates a fun environment and it’s a total body core workout. You’re recruiting all the muscles of your upper limbs, unlike, say, a single dumbbell arm curl that would only work the biceps.
‘You’re working your pectoralis muscle, your deltoid muscles, your biceps, your forearm muscles. And with all the core rotation, you recruit the three layers of oblique muscles that form the anterior abdominal wall.’
Icaros reaches parts that a sit-up — ‘which puts huge axial pressures on your lower spine’ — doesn’t reach. It also burns fat more effectively, yet doesn’t feel particularly strenuous. And, adds Mr Heaton, ‘the beauty of this is, you don’t need to be on it for hours. You can do five minutes.
‘As an orthopaedic surgeon, I’ve seen people who’ve trained for decades and wrecked joints through stress and strain. For the older generation, it gives the option of working your joints without damaging them.’
It’s only an hour later, on the train home, that the high wears off and I realise I feel like a wrung out dishcloth. My torso hurts, a deep visceral ache that penetrates to the bone.
Anna (pictured right with Phil Heaton) says she found virtual reality machine Icaros so much fun that she was sorry to have to stop
Eventually, even reading is too much effort and I snooze in my chair. I feel partially revived 30 minutes later, though my body still thrums and I’m ravenous. At home, I raid the fridge. Then I crash out and sleep as if I’ve been ironed on to the bed.
The following day, I’m alert for signs of discomfort in my lower back (my canary in the mineshaft for the suitability of any exercise).
Along with my torso and arms, my lower back gently ached after my VR session. Mr Heaton warned: ‘Tomorrow you’re going to ache in your shoulders, chest, core and a little bit in your back — in a good way.’ He’s right. I feel a residue of tightness in my arms and upper chest, but it’s not uncomfortable. My back is fine.
Usually, after three minutes on the treadmill, I’m clock-watching. With VR, however, I was distracted, like a cat with a piece of string. Mr Heaton notes some of his patients experience vertigo at first, but it wears off. I don’t love heights, and finding myself seemingly in mid-air was disconcerting — ‘Oh my gosh, I’m over the sea!’ — but within minutes, I was loving it.
Later, I describe the experience to my husband, Phil. He sympathises with the vertigo-sufferers — every time he tries VR gaming, it sparks migraines and leaves him dizzy. An internet search reveals an affliction dubbed ‘Vomit Reality’.
Phil Heaton is supporting Icaros which was developed by friends because he believes it’s a smart way to exercise
VR can cause a form of motion sickness, so it’s not for everyone. But for many, it’s potentially a painless, ingenious way to trick yourself into working out.
As Mr Heaton says, even if health professionals persuade reluctant exercisers to visit the gym, ‘you don’t want to get them to the point of “huff, huff, huff”, as they won’t come back.’
Far better to ensure that, as with Icaros, the experience is ‘fun, fun, fun’. Almost without noticing, he says, people raise their basal metabolic rate and soon show improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness such as a lower resting heart rate.
Mr Heaton is supporting Icaros —invented by friends — simply because he believes it’s a smart way to exercise that is kind to your joints. There’s no financial incentive.
He sees the consequences of doing no exercise — or too much. ’A lot of training methods are repetitive, joint-pounding patterns of movement,’ he says. ‘And I should know. I’m the one doing hip and knee replacements.’
At least one national chain of fitness clubs has shown interest in the technology, but in the meantime those keen to incorporate virtual reality into their health regime can consider Oculus Rift (£399.95, johnlewis.com), a VR system for home use.
You need a trigonometry degree to set it up, but the IT department (husband Phil) managed it eventually.
The amount Facebook paid when it bought Oculus Rift in 2014
To become dextrous with the hand-held controls, which translate gestures into the virtual world, you complete an initiation process involving VR tasks with a lookalike of Wall-E, the Disney robot. The children take to it faster than I do: ‘Hello, my little robot friend!’ cries my ten-year old.
Games such as Superhot (fighting androids — if you move in slow motion, so do they) and The Climb (you clamber up sheer mountainsides, and if you lose your grip, splat), are not categorised as sport, but after 20 minutes of lunging, reaching, bending and ducking, players get sweaty. ‘An excellent workout,’ pants Phil after a bout of AI battle.
The Guided Meditation VR is not what we’re used to. ‘You just ripped the arms off a robot with your peaceful soul,’ jokes Phil. I’m impressed by the stunning array of locations (from the Costa del Sol to outer space or Atlantis), music and moods (for depression, anxiety, peace or sleep).
Your meditation can last for two, five or ten minutes. Once you’ve arrived in, say, ancient Egypt, you can press a button to zap to another part of your destination. There’s no point in half-measures: I decide to visit a Lost Paradise island, then Valhalla.
Partly as I’m not fabulous with the tech (I was baffled as to the lack of narrative, before realising the volume on the ‘meditation’ option was set at zero), I end up with a Zen meditation in Paradise. Could be worse.
A national gym chain has shown interest in adding Icaros to its branches
I’m hovering over a turquoise sea on a wooden deck and I can hear waves lapping. Exotic fish and a turtle swim beneath me. To my right is a desert island, dotted with palm trees and there are huts on stilts in the water. Not a soul here except for me.
My coach is very soothing. We focus on breath and noticing our thoughts but not following them. I gaze at the sky and exhale. It is magnificent, but I find it hard on the eyes and the visor is heavier than say ski goggles, so it’s not perfect. But the meditation is excellent.
Josh Farkas, of Cubicle Ninjas, creators of the Guided Meditation VR app, tells me the team carefully selected their favourite meditation and mindfulness experts from around the globe.
Next, I arrive in Valhalla having involuntarily chosen day eight of a meditation on focus. Again, my guide is wise and calming, and the scenery is glorious. I’m perched in a crystal stream as fat salmon glide past. There are pine-covered mountains and I can almost taste the clean air.
Afterwards, I feel zoned out. I certainly left the living room and the grey, browns and dull greens of a winter’s day in London. But my eyes feel sore — though this is a marvel, I’d use it sparingly.
At fitness clubs nationwide, immersive spin workouts are also catching on (think a 3D cinema cycling experience), courtesy of a company called Les Mills. They create VR excursions called The Trip, of which there are 12 so far, and destinations range from the earth’s core to outer space.
The David Lloyd club in Raynes Park, London, has a purpose-built immersive studio. Its black ceiling sparkles with LED lights and there’s a screen at the front. Instructor Sam Taylor gets me comfy on a stationary bike.
The class (a range of ages, with the eldest in her 70s) pick ‘Trip 11’, leaving me none the wiser. The immersive video begins and I’m pedalling on a mountainous road with beautiful coastline scenery, under a blue sky. There’s a few minutes of adjustment as almost instantly the ground drops away and I’m speeding down a steep hill. It’s disconcerting, but liberating. In real life I’d hit the brakes.
We cycle into the sea. Not what I was expecting. We continue through a whirling water tunnel. As we pedal furiously along an underwater highway, to the beat of an invigorating soundtrack, the odd killer whale glides past.
We fall into a rhythm. Every time we pass an old gravestone in the seabed, we increase resistance and stand up on our bikes. Jellyfish billow around us and when we steer through hoops (popular in VR, I’m realising) I lean into the curve. I feel a burn in my thighs — pedalling standing up feels suspiciously like a squat — but focusing on the marine life takes the edge off.
As Sam says: ‘You’re so engrossed, it takes you away from what you’re doing. The class doesn’t feel like a high-intensity 45-minute workout, which is actually what it is.
‘Research has shown you burn 20 per cent more calories in a class like that without realising it — you’re working at a higher level than you think as you’re distracted by the imagery and music. It’s designed to take you away from what you’re doing. It’s amazing.’
Afterwards, I realise I’m sweaty, and my legs ache. The next day, my quadriceps make it clear how hard I worked. I can barely hobble down stairs. I was under the impression I’d enjoyed a breezy underwater sightseeing tour. Turns out it was high-intensity training. Truly amazing.
As far as exercise goes, particularly for reluctant people like me, VR has indeed created a whole new world.
davidlloyd.co.uk, oculus.com, icaros.com