Researchers supported by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre have shown that virtual reality (VR) exergaming (physical activity carried out in a virtual environment) improved how participants felt about exercise and reduced how much food they chose to eat after they finished.

The people who took part in the study enjoyed VR exergaming more than a standard exercise session and they also ate, on average, 12 per cent less food at the end of it. VR did not change what they thought about the physical effort needed to complete the activity, how hungry they felt or the type of food they were interested in eating.

The fact that participants ate less after their session is important because researchers suspect that some people see the food they eat after being physically active as a ‘reward’. If we make exercise more enjoyable it is possible that people will feel like their ‘reward’ can be smaller.

Dr Sarah Sauchelli  and Prof. Jeff Brunstrom invited 34 adults classed as inactive, or not meeting the World Health Organisation’s physical activity recommendations, to complete two exercise sessions. One of these involved VR and the other did not.

Various scales were used to see what participants liked to eat and how they tolerated exercise. Their general health, eating habits and their psychological response to exercise were also assessed.

Dr Sarah Sauchelli said:

“Promoting physical activity and associating it with positive experiences has really come to the fore in public health messaging recently.

“We wanted to see if we could use VR technology to empower our participants to feel more positive about the physical activity they were doing, and how this might affect how much they ate afterwards.

“This study has helped us understand the potential of VR as a tool for research and innovation in healthcare, especially because of how often this technology is now being used in different settings.”

Participants attended the Bristol VR Lab on three separate occasions. The first session introduced them to the idea of exergaming. After that, one session included VR and the other one did not.

The VR workout was seen as more enjoyable when compared with an otherwise identical cycling session without VR.

Prof. Jeff Brunstrom said:

“Our results have shown that VR has the potential to help adults become more active, especially if they are prone to eating excessive amounts of food after physical activity.

“It is all about framing the subject of exercise, empowering people, and letting them choose how they want to be active.

“This approach could be particularly beneficial for people living with obesity or type 2 diabetes because it would encourage them to engage with physical activity and hopefully reduce their risk of overeating afterwards.”

Paper

Virtual reality exergaming improves affect during physical activity and reduces subsequent food consumption in inactive adults
Sarah Sauchelli and Jeff Brunstrom
Published in the journal Appetite