Immersive Fitness: Fad or Future?

Questions Loom as Virtual Training Hits the Gym

For decades, the prophetic lens of American cinema has provided us a glimpse of what our fitness future may hold. We’ve witnessed Luke Skywalker hone his lightsaber skills against a hovering, blaster-firing remote in A New Hope. We’ve even seen Sharon Stone practice her serve alongside a hologram tennis instructor in Total Recall. And while the concept of mastering combat by simply uploading the knowledge directly into our brain Matrix-style still appears a ways off, virtual training has already entered the bloodstream of modern-day fitness.

Emerging as a significant wellness trend in recent years, immersive fitness aims to transcend the average workout class. It’s an experience that’s both physical and mental, employing visual and auditory effects. Spin classes such as Les Mill’s The Trip feature a theater-sized screen that whirls riders through the hills of San Francisco and a fantasy world resembling Wonderland. New York City fitness center Asphalt Green takes it a step further and offers AG6, an interactive circuit class that challenges participants’ muscle memory with a video game presentation of lights that emit from pressure-sensitive floors and walls.

By pushing the boundaries of sensory intake, participants are kept fully engaged, allowing them to reach their fitness potential. A study featured last month in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise supports its benefits, finding that exercisers experience increased satisfaction and decreased perceived exertion with the addition of visual effects in their workout. But despite promising results and the record number of health clubs and gym usership across the country, you will still be hard-pressed to find immersive classes featured at the local gym. These remain a particularly niche offering.

Joining the fitness arms race, virtual and augmented reality provide yet another new twist on the immersive trend. VR has exploded as one of the world’s largest consumer growth markets, estimated to reach a $26.89 billion value by 2022. Fitness looks to play a sizeable factor and the available content is growing. So will we be canceling our gym memberships in favor of burning calories by strapping on a VR headset and training with Bruce Lee? Or will our gyms soon be offering an array of VR classes? It’s possible, but the evolution of fitness technology suggests we tap the breaks.

This is an industry where ambitious ingenuity has made for a rich history of trends and fads. Past generations of fitness enthusiasts have found innovative technology unfolding before their eyes in the form of vibrating belt machines and 8 Minute Abs videos. More recently, we’ve seen the meteoric rise and fall of Wii Fit and now a huge market for wearables but also looming questions regarding what functionality is in store beyond simply measuring steps and heart rate.

While the development of emerging fitness technologies is not likely to slow down any time soon and we’re bound to see many more eye-popping advancements in coming years, it will be fascinating to see what new toys end up becoming a mainstay of our workout experience and which ones fizzle out. As the menu of customizable fitness tools and posh workout programs grows longer, chances are there are many more fads to come.