Can Fitness Be Virtual Reality’s Long Awaited Killer App?

A woman playing Supernatural.

VR workout apps like Supernatural are inviting an older, more gender-balanced audience to join the virtual world.

The COVID-19 lockdowns of early 2020 were a serious setback for Heather Pohlman’s health. Pohlman, now 51, had been struggling with weight issues, a bad back, and severe fibromyalgia, which had forced her to give up her career as a dog trainer two years prior. 

“I was obese and in a lot of pain,” she recalls during a recent video call from her home in Lake Zurich, Illinois, a small, idyllic waterfront suburb north of Chicago. To recover, Pohlman went to the gym, began swimming, and changed her diet. “I was starting to get a handle on things,” she says. “Then COVID closed the gym.”

More out of boredom than anything else, she bought herself a virtual reality (VR) headset. That’s how she came across the VR workout service Supernatural, which combines elements of VR rhythm games with catchy music and encouraging coaches for an experience that’s part Peloton, part Beat Saber, the music-based VR videogame. Thinking that it was just another game, Pohlman gave Supernatural a try—and was hooked right away. “I was blown away, absolutely blown away,” she recalls.

After putting on a VR headset, Supernatural users are transported into scenic landscapes for a variety of workouts that include boxing, hitting shapes with virtual bats, stretches, and even meditation. “You’re standing on a 360-degree photorealistic beach in Tahiti while smashing targets to the beat of your favorite music,” says Supernatural head of fitness Leanne Pedante. “All of the distractions and challenges fade away.” 

Pohlman began working out regularly with Supernatural, and quickly fell in love with the service. “There is a mental aspect to it that’s so much more powerful than the physical aspect,” she says. “You come away feeling badass.” She didn’t miss the gym anymore, and her body was healing. “I’ve lost 70 pounds,” Pohlman says. “I found confidence in myself.” 

Both the weight loss and the confidence boost allowed her to finally get a back surgery, and her newfound love for working out even paved the way for career change: Pohlman now works as a health coach, and she encourages her own clients to try VR fitness as well. “I wouldn’t be where I am without Supernatural,” she says.

First released in April of 2020, Supernatural has become one of the most popular titles on Meta’s Quest VR headset. 20 percent of the headset’s monthly active players either use Supernatural or another VR fitness app, according to internal company data that came to light during a recent lawsuit. 

“VR fitness is the stickiest and most diverse way to get people to use VR daily.”

That level of success surprised even some of VR’s biggest boosters. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg professed during an interview with podcaster Joe Rogan last year that he didn’t anticipate the emergence of VR fitness. “I thought that in the long term, something like that would start to happen,” he said. “But it happened way sooner than I thought.”

Tech companies don’t have to be told twice about an emerging trend like this. After word spread that Apple was interested in acquiring Supernatural, Meta swooped in and spent $430 million to purchase the company, which had previously raised around $57 million in funding, earlier this year. Meta has also been integrating fitness tracking directly into the system software of its headsets, and even built dedicated workout accessories for its Quest 2 headset.

One reason Meta and other VR headset makers like fitness is that it has helped to diversify their audience, which has traditionally been young and male-dominated. “Fitness is capturing this kind of 35-plus, gender-neutral audience in VR,” says Sam Cole, the CEO of FitXR, another popular VR fitness service. And while many VR games have struggled to retain users, leading to headsets catching dust in drawers, fitness apps aren’t seeing the same drop-off. “Fitness [is] driving people to use the headset in a habitual manner,” Cole says.

“VR fitness is the stickiest and most diverse way to get people to use VR daily,” agrees Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag. “It is driving headset adoption in older audiences.”

Sag is no stranger to VR fitness himself. In addition to covering VR and related technologies for his employer, he also used Supernatural to recover from a serious bout of COVID that put him in the hospital for over a week in 2020. These days, he is using VR less than before due to extended traveling. “When I’m home, though, I do like to mix in VR workouts with my gym sessions because it’s still way more fun than doing any [traditional] cardio.”

“What is really exciting about VR is it’s fun,” agrees Brendon Stubbs, a fitness researcher at King’s College London who has been advising FitXR. “It ticks a box,” he says. “People want to take part. It’s accessible. And you lose track of time. People just get in this flow state experience, with all of its benefits.”

Making fitness more enjoyable could also provide huge health benefits, Stubbs argues. “Long-term conditions, chronic conditions [including] obesity, diabetes, [and] mental health conditions can be partially prevented through exercise,” he says. And people who already suffer from these conditions can greatly benefit from exercise as part of a broader treatment plan.

Research shows that more than 60 percent of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of physical exercise, which is defined as five sessions of at least 30 minutes of sustained physical activity of any intensity level per week. Giving these people something that feels more like a game than a chore could be a massive opportunity, Stubbs explains. “For people who wouldn’t go to a gym, that wouldn’t go join a run club, wouldn’t go and join a football team or a tennis club—I think it is really exciting to help them experience the benefits and joys of movement.”

“You’re going to see a wave of innovation with mixed reality.”

To reach the masses, VR fitness is dependent on the overall growth of the headset market. Meta execs reportedly told employees earlier this year that the company had sold close to 20 million Quest headsets. The company is releasing a new headset this fall, and reports suggest that it may follow with an aggressively priced entry-level device that could further expand VR usage next year.

Apple will be releasing its own Vision Pro headset next year. The company isn’t expected to ship huge numbers of the $3,500 device, but its release will put a bigger emphasis on mixed reality, which combines VR elements with a view of the real world—something that could also benefit fitness apps. “You’re going to see a wave of innovation” with mixed reality, says Cole, suggesting that the technology will allow it to more safely add things like push-ups and yoga poses to VR workouts.

But while the technology itself could be a huge draw, there’s another aspect that has already contributed to the popularity of VR fitness services: The community that has formed around them. Nearly 90,000 of Supernatural’s users have joined the service’s official Facebook group, where they post about their personal workouts, engage with some of the coaches, and celebrate each other’s achievements.

And it’s not just one Facebook group. “There’s nutrition groups,” recovery success story Heather Pohlman says. “There’s groups for women over 50. There’s so many of these offshoot groups, communities within the community.” She started a private Supernatural-related Facebook group with 25 fellow VR athletes in 2021 as well, with the goal of further gamifying the workouts with virtual medals. Two years later, the group has grown to 1,600 members.

“Without that community, without the workout parties, without the other groups, Supernatural would just be a video game,” Pohlman says.

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