Virtual Reality glasses that show exercises have similar effects to people who can’t move

Previous research has described how virtual training delivers acute cognitive and neural benefits. Building on those results, a new study suggests that comparable virtual training may also reduce psychosocial stress and anxiety.

Physical activity benefits our overall well-being. But for some – such as neurological patients, people with cardiovascular disease and hospitalized patients – physical exertion is not feasible, or even too dangerous. However, similar effects can be achieved using Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR).

Despite originally being intended for entertainment, IVR has caught the attention of the academic community for its potential use for clinical purposes as it allows the user to experience a virtual world through a virtual body.

In the previous study by researchers at Tohoku University’s Smart-Aging Research Center, they found that looking at a moving virtual body displayed in first-person perspective induces physiological changes. The heart rate increased/decreased coherently with the virtual movements, even though the young participants remained silent. Consequently, acute cognitive and neural benefits occurred, just like after real physical activity.

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In a follow-up study, the same benefits were also found in healthy elderly subjects after 20-minute sessions that took place twice a week for six weeks.

In the current study, the researchers examined the effect on stress and added a new level to the beneficial effects of virtual training. Young, healthy subjects, while sitting still, experienced virtual training rendered from the first person perspective, creating the illusion of ownership over movements.

The avatar ran at 4 mph for 30 minutes. Before and after the virtual training, the researchers induced and assessed the psychosocial stress response by measuring salivary alpha-amylase — a crucial biomarker indicating levels of neuroendocrine stress. Likewise, they handed out a subjective questionnaire for anxiety.

The results showed a reduced psychosocial stress response and lower anxiety levels after the virtual training, similar to what happens after real exercise.

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“Psychosocial stress represents the stress experienced in frequent social situations such as social judgment, rejection, and when our performance is evaluated,” said Professor Dalila Burin, who developed the study.

“While a moderate amount of exposure to stress can be beneficial, repeated and increased exposure can be detrimental to our health. This kind of virtual training represents a new frontier, especially in countries like Japan, where there are high performance standards and an aging population.”

These latest findings have been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Source: Tohoku University

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