Regardless of any restrictions on group exercise, my fitness studio is open whenever I want to work out. I can vibe off the lighting, the music, the sense of a place that’s not my house, my upbeat if slightly repetitive instructor. And I can look to the sides and see my classmates. Well, just their heads and hands. But it’s nice to know they’re sort of there.
For the past month, I’ve been working out using an Oculus Quest virtual reality headset (from £299) and an app called FitXR (£7.99 a month). As a rule, I don’t really like fitness tech, which is awkward because I often have to write about it for work. I particularly don’t like somehow finding the time and energy between professional and personal obligations to work out only to discover my running app needs updating or my headphones are flat. For me, exercise is an opportunity to unplug, to reconnect with my body. Fitness tech can hinder as much as help and, fundamentally, it’s unnecessary.
I was pleasantly surprised by the hassle-freedom of the standalone Oculus Quest then. And I was utterly dumbstruck by the totality of immersion. A few times my wife passes by the door of our bedroom where I’m working out, but I have no idea she’s there, because I’m not. I’m in a studio, punching the translucent targets flying towards me like a combo of Guitar Hero and Wii Fit: blue for left hand, yellow for right. When I manage to hit the circles with a well timed straight, a hook or an uppercut respectively, the targets explode satisfyingly. If my aim is off, they pop disappointingly. And if I miss completely they just fly through me, because they’re not really there, and neither am I.
Nor are the long, variously angled barriers, but I reflexively duck and weave anyway. Above the assorted flying things are my score in “FitXr points”, my current streak (successfully hitting and not getting hit) and my level (which progresses from one to a max of 10 over the length of the class).
In the corners of my eyes, the heads and hands of my classmates, the scoreboard that flashes when I move up or down the rankings and the power meter all encourage me to go for it. I cathartically beat the crap out of thin air.
I’m really punching and squatting so I shouldn’t be surprised when like the Inception crew waking up from dreaming about a faceful of glass, I remove my headset to find myself drenched in real sweat. (Conveniently FitXr sells a fabric headband, a silicone headset cover and an “ice towel” to absorb any perspiration, plus workout kit and weighted wristbands.)
Real human instructors are there to choreograph and introduce each boxing class, but only appear on the selection screen, with their stock phrases replayed too often like football computer game commentary. The effect is a whole lot more convincing in the new HIIT studio, a ringer for Ironman Tony Stark’s Malibu mansion, in which the trainer’s uncanny-valley avatar guides you through variations on the general theme of punching and squatting. And in the dance studio, where you follow their lead, in my case with difficulty.
After I play around with a few classes — after first closing the bedroom door, and the curtains — I consider wearing a tracker to conduct a test. I count my resting heart rate, which is 54, my press-ups max, which is 20, and my air squats max, which is probably more than 120 before tracking myself into a bored slumber. For each class, the app’s stats section records your FitXr score anyway along with your calorie burn – for me, just over 100 calories in 20 minutes, however accurate that is.
Now that I’m no longer playing around, I step up to advanced classes and quickly back down again to intermediate. I instead try to maintain my streak, and power through progressively longer classes. I wake up with real DOMS. After a few weeks, one of the callouses on my hands falls off.
The update for the HIIT studio forces me to factory-reset the headset and miss a workout. And occasionally the controllers drop out because their AA batteries have come loose or gone flat, or because I have accidentally pressed a button which should automatically pause the class but doesn’t, and breaks my streak.
Otherwise though, I’m able to work out consistently and intensely. However flat I’m feeling at the start, the headset unfailingly gets me into the headspace. After a month, I know I’m fitter because I feel it in my body. My average punch speed is up from just over 5m/s to 6m/s. My resting heart rate hasn’t changed, but my press-ups max has increased from 20 to 25, and my air squats from 120 to over 250. Maybe I’m a lot fitter, or maybe I didn’t push myself in the original test as hard as I could have.
Therein lies the crux. I can punch and squat without lights, music, a sense of a place that’s not my house, an upbeat if slightly repetitive instructor. But am I really going to?