Using the Oculus headset, the "Supernatural" app lets you travel to beautiful locations while giving you a full-body workout.TODAY Illustration / Brianna Steinhilber
The virtual reality workout not only had me working up a serious sweat, it was a game-changer for my mental health.
I am far from a gamer — aside from some serious Mario Kart skills from my childhood that resurface when my brother and I are home for the holidays. But like most health-conscious people clinging to walks around the neighborhood and Instagram live workouts as a lifeline during the pandemic, I found myself struggling to keep my workouts interesting when doing them alone in my living room.
So I was intrigued, yet skeptical, when I unboxed the Oculus Quest headset that arrived on my doorstep so that I could give the "Supernatural" virtual reality workout a try. After all, digital workout tools must be one of the top fitness trends of 2020 for a reason.
I have to be honest: I didn’t think I would be a huge fan. I've never been one to enjoy fancy workout gadgets and consider myself a bit technologically challenged. And I enjoy my current workout routine — mostly boxing classes, strength training and yoga on a few apps, and lots of walks with my son around the neighborhood.
But I am now making room permanently for Supernatural workouts in my routine. Here’s why.
To start, download the "Supernatural" app to the Oculus Quest headset.
The equipment you need to complete the workout is an Oculus Quest headset and two handheld controllers, which will run you $299. Honestly, I was shocked at how affordable the set is considering how crisp the graphics are and how well made and comfortable the equipment feels. The headset, which can be used to access tons of apps (not just workouts), is a hot item this holiday season, so you can also justify the price with the fact that others in your household may use it, too.
You then need to download the Supernatural app to the device. The app costs about $17/month (though the price varies depending on how many months you bundle together), and has hundreds of workouts in the library with a new routine added every day.
Beyond that, a yoga mat is helpful (but not required). All you need is a space that is a minimum of 6 feet by 6 feet so you can move around freely once inside the “Supernatural” world.
The view from inside the headset: You'll see your "bat" crushing a balloon.Supernatural
Before I started working out, I set up a profile (you can have up to three profiles per membership, which is a nice feature allowing multiple family members to track their stats). The system calibrates your height, arm span and squat depth to personalize the workouts. You'll then be led through a tutorial by one of the virtual trainers. It took about 10-15 minutes and was super straightforward. They walked me through setting up the space and creating boundaries so that I wasn’t knocking down lamps and running into tables once I started. I was then lead through an easy sample workout.
The premise is simple: targets fly at you with a "tail" pointed in the direction you need to swing (up, down, right or left). You hold a bat (they look like light sabers to me) in each hand and they explode as you hit them, which I found surprisingly satisfying. I also practiced squatting and lunging through triangles that flew my way. (Full disclosure: I was already sweating after the 5-minute intro class).
Thankfully for the technologically challenged, the interface is simple to navigate and you can filter workouts by duration, intensity and music type. I appreciated this feature because I was always able to quickly find a workout that fit my schedule, mood and motivation level. One afternoon, I literally had 10 minutes before my son woke up from his nap, so I selected a high-intensity, short workout and was able to get in a quick cardio session. Later in the week, I had a longer chunk of time so I let my mood be my guide and did a series of longer workouts to upbeat, pop hits.
And I have to mention the gorgeous locations. There were a few times I missed the start of the workout because I was too busy turning 360 degrees and soaking in my surroundings. (A little morning trip to the mountains in Romania, anyone?)
The core workouts feature lots of twisting side to side to work the obliques.
I consider myself to be in pretty good shape. I am still getting back to where I was pre-baby in terms of endurance, but since I exercise five times a week I wasn’t too intimidated by the workout. In reality, I definitely underestimated what I was in for.
For my first workout, I just got used to the movements and got comfortable wearing the headset, holding the controllers and learning what different alerts meant (like when I stepped too close to one of my borders and saw the virtual wall pop up). Still, time flew by, and when I emerged from under the headset (only after my husband knocked on the door and asked me if I was ever going to come out), I was dripping in sweat. There is certainly a time-traveling aspect to doing a virtual reality workout. You get sucked in and spit out an hour later and have no idea how you got there — which is a far cry from being in a workout class and watching the clock wondering how only 10 minutes have gone by.
I would describe the actual movement you perform as a mix between drumming and sword fighting. I used to take Pound classes at Crunch, and the movements felt very similar to my body. Especially since the targets fly at you to the beat of the music track, so there is definitely a rhythm aspect to the workout. (I may have broken out some dance moves during the workout!)
Throughout the workouts you receive audio guidance on form, as well as motivational encouragement from your trainer. I have far from explored the entire library, but one day I tried a few core-focused routines, which included lots of twisting moves and side lunges that engaged the obliques. It definitely worked my abs, and was much more enjoyable than sets of crunches and planks.
Some mornings, I was guilty of picking up the headset and doing a quick workout in my slippers.
I especially loved the lower-body routines. Squats and lunges can get really repetitive, but I must have done a couple hundred of them in one workout session (no exaggeration), without even realizing. I was so focused on ducking through the flying triangles and hitting the balloons that I hardly noticed the lower-body burn — until the next morning when I felt sore in my glutes and thighs.
The premise sounds basic, but it is so addicting once you get started. There a few things that kept me coming back for more. The first: my competitive spirit. You get an accuracy and a power score, so if you enjoy competitive gaming or enjoy workouts that keep you chasing your own stats (think, Peloton or Orange Theory) you will love it. There is also a social component with a leader board that you access through the companion app. The second: the ability to completely zone out and immerse myself in this alternate universe, where there were no work emails, chores or crying babies in sight.
Before the pandemic (and before I had a 9-month-old clinging to my leg 24 hours a day), the gym was my escape. I would head there after work and have an hour of “me time” to decompress from the day. While “Supernatural” wasn’t designed with a pandemic in mind, it could not have come at a better time.
We’ve all been forced to work where we live, and when the dishes are calling my name from 5 feet away, it’s hard for me to find that mental space to just focus on my workout. For me, the need was compounded by the fact that I’m a new mom and the stress and demands are never-ending. Since I can’t leave the house to get some time away at a fitness studio or gym, the headset creates that separate space where I feel like I am somewhere else outside of my own home that is riddled with tasks to do. One of the intriguing things about virtual reality is the escapism it provides, and I think most people can use a little bit of an escape right now.
The cardio workouts provided me that, but for days when I really need some calm, there are also meditations available. And as someone who is constantly juggling multiple tasks and battling anxiety bubbling below the surface (I know I’m far from alone), these are a game-changer. On one particularly stressful morning, after I had spent the first hour of my day caring for my son, cleaning up an accident my dog left on the carpet and answering work emails, I felt like I was going to snap. I slipped the headset on, lay down on my yoga mat and checked in to a 10-minute meditation in the Galapagos islands.
I wasn’t distracted by cries coming from upstairs, the dog barking to go out or by catching a glimpse of the overflowing laundry hamper. Did my never-ending to-do list magically disappear? No. But for those 10 minutes, I wasn’t thinking about it. And it was exactly the reset I needed to regain my composure and continue on with my day.
“Supernatural” also made my workouts something they hadn’t been for awhile: FUN. I enjoy working up a sweat because it feels good, but I would seldom describe my workouts as a “fun” activity. There’s something to be said about not having to muster up that motivation and push myself mentally through exercise. I was so focused on the game aspect of the workout that I felt like my brain got a break from the mental stress that can come with pushing yourself through a set of burpees or a 3-mile run.