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Virtual reality found to reduce exercise pain, increase stamina

VR wearers reported up to 13 percent less pain during exercise than non-VR wearers

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A study has found that people exercising while wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset reported less pain while lifting weights, and were able to exercise for longer than those not using VR.

A control group of 40 participants aged 18 to 45 was taken into a room containing a chair, a table and a yoga mat on the floor. They were then asked to lift a weight which was 20 percent of the maximum weight they could lift. They were told to lift the weight in a bicep curl motion, then hold it in place for as long as possible.

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The VR group — also with 40 people of the same age range — stood in the same room and also saw a virtual representation of the room with the same objects, complete with computer generated arms to mimic the movements of their own.

After holding the weight up for one minute, the VR wearers reported pain intensity which was 10 percent lower than the control group, increasing to 13 percent in the second minute.

Additionally, the VR wearers were able to hold the weight for around two minutes longer before reaching the point of exhaustion; they also had a heart rate which was on average three beats per minute lower than the non-VR group.

Participants used a Samsung Gear VR headset — a middle-of-the-road device in VR terms — with a Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone running the virtual experience.

The experiment was conducted by the University of Kent, England, and suggests that VR provides such a distraction to the wearer that, even though they can see a virtual representation of the weight they are holding up, attention is taken away from the sensations of pain and exhaustion.

Images of the VR arm and weight seen by participantsUniversity of Kent

This echos an earlier study which found wearing VR headsets helped to reduce the pain of the first stages of childbirth.

Lead researcher of the exercise experiment, Maria Matsangidou, said: "It is clear from the data gathered that the use of VR technology can improve performance during exercise on a number of criteria. This could have major implications for exercise regimes for everyone, from occasional gym users to professional athletes."

Another possible explanation, the report explains, is that because the virtual arm did not show signs of fatigue — raised veins and skin redness — then the participant felt less tired. In short, the participants could have believed that the virtual arm was their own, tricking their brain into thinking they were less tired.

The report adds: "As the movement of the virtual hand was realistically mapped to that of the real hand, participants were very likely to have felt the virtual hand as their own."

A third explanation the study suggests is how the virtual world — although realistic, but not entirely believable — could have had a calming effect on the participants by reminding them of the happy memories of the cartoons of their childhood.

The report concludes: "The results of this study provide evidence that VR technology can play a significant role in reducing the sensations of pain and effort caused by exercise."


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