Can Virtual Fitness Replace Gyms and Human Trainers?

The Emergence of Virtual Fitness
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Wearables, digital health tracking devices, streaming fitness content, and different online exercise programs are challenging the concept of traditional fitness delivery models. Gyms and health clubs are no longer limited to “the four walls.” Digital extensions of traditional fitness delivery are emerging, supporting progress and user engagement using technology rather than human intervention.

In order to reach as many people as possible, the fitness industry is having to adapt to these new trends.

It is expanding its boundaries through virtual fitness and embracing the latest scientific findings and technological advancements in health technology.   

The most commonly cited reasons for leading an inactive lifestyle include limited time and difficult access to facilities. Therefore, introducing you to a personalized exercise routine you can do in your own time and from your own home has market potential. It might also change the way we approach activity and our workouts.

Some virtual fitness providers and software developers are also combining aspects of exercising with nutrition and other features of a healthy lifestyle. These products and services offer a well-rounded, yet virtual, approach to health and well-being. You can now receive your personalized workout and diet plans on your cellphone or laptop. Virtual approaches to health are often more cost-effective when compared to traditional gym memberships or buying the latest fitness equipment.

Exergames Are Motivating People to Move More

Exergames are a combination of physical exercise and digital games. Developed to transform monotonous practice into a more enjoyable activity, these systems are being successfully used in different settings, including rehabilitation and sport training. Fun and fitness are now combined in various digital gaming products, products like Wii Fit Plus, Fitness Evolved and Kinect Sports.

Research into the use of virtual fitness shows that these programs are not only increasing the enjoyment factor for users, they are also contributing to better engagement and compliance. Nonetheless, the quality of these applications varies, and they are not routinely evaluated in a rigorous way.

Virtual fitness applications that aim to increase physical activity usually employ some sort of motion tracking system and a graphical representation of the user, the so-called avatar. A research team from the University of Wuerzburg in Germany, led by Assistant Professor Jean-Luc Lugrin, evaluated the impact of avatars on a person’s performance during virtual fitness training. They compared realistic avatars, resembling the user’s body, to non-realistic avatars, which appeared stronger and fitter than the user's real body.

Researchers found that performance slightly increased when there were more similarities between the user and the virtual representation of their body (for example, when a realistic-looking avatar of the same gender was used).

However, during interviews, participants reported that stronger-looking avatars imbued them with a feeling of power. The research team, specializing in artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction and computer graphics, is planning to continue with their line of investigation to improve our understanding of avatars and the way they influence the illusion of virtual body ownership. Their findings might help game designers develop more relevant fitness applications in the future.

Health technology is now often built using principles of neuroscience. Fitness Evolved, for example, focuses on stress and how we react to different stressors. Within this system, pain is seen as a distraction that emerges when we experience stress (emotional or physical). To improve on the platform, stress needs to be managed better. The program helps you reduce perceived threats by targeting your specific stressors and then adjusts based on your interaction with the app. It tailors itself to you as you work toward a stress-proof state of mind.

Can a Virtual Coach Replace Human Fitness Trainers?

The rapid growth of mobile virtual fitness apps is redefining the way we interact with brick-and-mortar fitness facilities. Virtual coaches are now augmenting the traditional offering of a personal fitness trainer. They are also providing users with a new form of social support. Although personal trainers have been recognized as an important source of encouragement and emotional support—especially when we are navigating a rough patch—some experts are musing whether technology could help persuade and encourage in more efficient ways.

Mobile virtual fitness applications allow trainees to set their exercise schedules, provide exercise reminders and help with maintaining training logs. Moreover, many of these apps now have the option to record and monitor our progress by employing digital equipment such as heart rate monitors, pedometers and other wearables, creating a feedback loop that optimizes our training sessions.

Nonetheless, most experts agree that virtual programs and coaches cannot replace the human professional (yet) and that these systems for the time being act more as aids to personal fitness trainers. Arguably, there are advantages to having a personal trainer who can give you tailored attention based on what they are seeing.

At the 2016 Motionsoft Technology Summit in Baltimore, Maryland, Rasmus Ingerslev, IHRSA Board Chair, emphasized in his closing keynote address that the fitness industry's focus should now be on more individualized fitness service. This applies to both face-to-face fitness and digital health options as well. It is very important for us to be able to set individual personalized goals, as well as consider our individual constraints, and this is where the potential advantage of fitness applications lies.

Modern, personalized virtual fitness systems can include a customizing strategy that considers our needs. Also, virtual fitness apps provide us with additional sensory stimulation, such as video and audio cues, which can have a positive effect on our practice and motivation. We can now choose our own scene presentation and game rules, making ourselves even more involved in our own training process.

BurnAlong is an example of an online video platform that combines the perks of having a human instructor with the benefits of practicing in the comfort of your own home. The platform lets users connect live with whoever makes them feel most motivated—be it their favorite gym instructor, a celebrity trainer or friends who might be living on the opposite side of the country. A wide variety of programs are offered through the platform, as well as different effort levels, so everyone can find something that suits their level of fitness.

The Great Indoors

Virtual fitness is also facilitating activities that are usually connected with the outdoors, such as cycling and walking. Bad weather or a cold winter can no longer stand in the way of your cycling session. Social interactions and group motivation are also a big part of the digital cycling training tools out there.

One such tool is Zwift—an online multiplayer video game based around indoor cycling. Zwift allows you to join an online cycling community that includes members from over 150 countries.

BitGym, another virtual fitness app, motivates you by providing you with different high definition tours from around the world as you train on your favorite stationary equipment. As you train, you are given beautiful virtual scenery to look at, complete with natural sounds and location-specific facts. No additional hardware is required for this app; all you need to do is place your smartphone or tablet on your cardio machine and it works off the vibration of the existing equipment.

Mouse- and Keyboard-Free Interactions

Another development that can be expected soon in the field of virtual fitness is the use of hand gestures to interact with various systems. Most conventional fitness apps rely on keyboards and mouse interaction, but these might soon be replaced by futuristic-looking hand gestures.

Associate Professor Zhao Hanli and his colleagues recently published a paper on the use of augment reality and virtual fitness. Their personalized 3D virtual fitness system incorporates evidence-backed fitness strategies with the latest in augmented reality. Their preliminary results confirmed that this type of design can be both effective and entertaining. This highly personalized virtual fitness system was also well accepted among the volunteers who participated in the study, so learnings for this research will likely be put to use in consumer products in the near future.

Sources:

Chi-Wai R, So-Ning T, Wing-Kuen K, Hui S, Ka-Shun P, Wong C. Can mobile virtual fitness apps replace human fitness trainer?. 2011 5th International Conference On New Trends In Information Science & Service Science (NISS) [serial online]. January 2011:56-63.

Lugrin J, Landeck M, Latoschik M. Avatar embodiment realism and virtual fitness training. 2015 IEEE Virtual Reality (VR) [serial online]. January 2015:225-226.

Mestre D, Ewald M, Maiano C. Virtual reality and fitness: effects of a virtual coach on enjoyment, attentional focus and behavior. Journal of Cybertherapy and Rehabilitation [serial online]. 2011; (2):253.

Hanli Z, Qingru M, Lizhen H, Zhigeng P. Design and implementation of the personalized virtual fitness system. Journal of Image & Graphics [serial online]. July 2015; 20(7):0953.

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