Why I Go to a Virtual Reality Gym

EDIT: As of July 2023 I have stopped going to Blackbox VR as the technical experience has been so buggy that equipment frequently breaks down. I'm now using a Vitruvian trainer at home.

For the past month or so, I've been going to Blackbox VR, a virtual reality gym in San Francisco.

If you're a gamer, you're probably wondering how you turn gym exercise into a VR game. In terms of genre, it's a tower defense game, like DoTA. You've got two lanes, you send out minions / creep and a selection of champions to take down opponents walls and towers, and can do direct attacks. The game engine's implemented in Unity, the VR headset is HTC Vive with two trackers for each arms. Summoning a champion is done through aerobic motions, waving and punching your hands to various positions. Direct attacts are executed by anaerobic compound exercises pulling against a dynamic resistance machine and it's designed to give you a 30 minute workout roughly like high intensity interval training.

But the interesting thing for me is the experience of exercise for me now. Exercise for me has always been something I've made myself do. I know I should do it. I know that regular exercise is one of the things that makes me happy. But up until this, I've always been working against the grain.

And when I say against the grain, I mean against my grain specifically. I have a number of traits associated with autism and/or ADHD. I've never been diagnosed, and I have no real interest in proving my neurodivergence, but… I have noticed many exercise recommendations are implicitly allocentric. I have noticed that these traits get in the way of establishing good exercise routines. And until Blackbox VR came along, I hadn't found anything that worked for me.

So What's My Deal?

I have generally poor awareness of my body and its limits. Unless my body is actively rebelling against me, I'll just keep pushing it. I don't know at what point I can minimize aches or exhaustion because I don't have a good feedback mechanism. I'll ask my body are we fine to do this? And my body will say "go for it" and hand me a blank check. Which I have to pay back later.

There's no positive feedback after exercise for me. I don't get any endorphins. On a good day, I feel tired and sweaty and vaguely disgusted with the meatsuit. On a bad day, I've felt like I was about to throw up. Hours after, I'll be a potato, unable to focus or work on anything. At night, I'll get muscle aches and twinges that will wake me up at 3 am and leave me unable to sleep again.

On top of this, exercise is boring, and I am distractable. I don't have the self control it takes to exercise without something or someone telling me this is what you do next. If I'm bored, I'll get out of exercise any way I can.

At the same time, people and noise are overwhelming. I have trouble figuring out conversations when there's lots of background noise. The social involvement of exercising around people can be a lot, and it tires me out very fast.

Things I Have Tried

First, I tried biking.

Riding a bicycle ticks several boxes at once – there's weather and sunlight and happy people in the park and it's stimulating and connecting. Biking through Golden Gate Park or around the Marin Headlands or even the Tiberon Loop is fun! But biking has drawbacks as well. It's time consuming, taking hours. It's potentially dangerous, because cars. It can be inconvenient depending on night, rain, smoke, or heat. But the worst part was dealing with "bonking" when my body would become hypoglyemic. Before I knew what it was, I called it the "undertow" – that part in the wave where all the effort I put in only netted me a couple of inches against the force of the wave pulling me back. I am not great at figuring out the line at which I bonk. I forget to eat, and I often don't notice when I'm hungry. Bonking would wipe me out not just for the ride, but also leave me mentally useless for much of the day, even after I'd physically recovered. I still bike around San Francisco, but if I'm biking out of the city then I have to block out the entire day for it.

I tried working from home.

I like Sworkit and the recommended routine from /r/bodyweightfitness using the iPhone app. But having a phone right there, right in front of me is deadly, especially when there are rest breaks and down time in between exercises. One weak moment, and I'm watching Tiktok videos and reading trashy novels on Kindle Unlimited. (I've tried Screen Time. It's not enough.)

So, I know I need stimulation, novelty, and a way to limit or check myself.

For a while, I did indoor rock climbing at Mission Cliffs with friends. This worked great and I loved it, but it is a two person activity, and my friends moved and got jobs that had different schedules.

I signed up to BootCampSF, but I am not a great runner and felt like a lumbering ox trying to keep up with everyone, and the social chatter and involvement was not my thing.

So, lifting weights at the gym. Gyms are close, they're convenient, they've got equipment. There are people, but they're doing their own thing. I'm actually okay with lifting weights. I like that weights are dynamic and make me push or pull, as opposed to the static and boring resistance of yoga and bodyweights. I still have my phone, but I know if I slack off then my spot is going to be taken, and I want to be out and done as soon as possible.

I went to SF Fitness, and used StrongLifts. I really liked the way that weight lifting adds small amounts of weights over time with the same routine. I couldn't put myself in a situation in which I could overextend myself, and if I truly found myself having a bad day, I could just put the weights down and go home. I could put in earbuds, block out everything around me, and focus.

Except for the fact that I couldn't do it right. You'd think weightlifting would be a mindless activity, but watching the videos and trying to match my own posture and movement to the videos was like working out a dynamic jenga puzzle. Lifters will tell you about good form and bad form. I had worse than bad form, I have bad proprioception and bad attention. I'd go through an exercise thinking I'd done everything right, and then cringe at the video showing me rolling my back with my legs splayed out. Again, no body feedback. My body would tell me everything was fine on the day, and the next day my knees would hurt.

A weightlifting gym seemed like a good compromise; I'd get good form and feedback, would be attending regular sessions, and still get a workout. I followed Ask a Swole Woman, signed up to An Iron Movement and started going to Lifting 101.

An Iron Movement is explicitly not a "bro" gym. That being said, it's a small space, with many people. Because I was in a class, I couldn't wear my earbuds. I tried wearing noise reduction ear plugs, but that only helped so much. The noise and the constant overwhelming input didn't just affect conversations, but also things like rack-math: what weights you have to put on the barbell to add up. And working out what to do next. Even when I did everything right, it was mentally exhausting. And then I had to write all the numbers down in a notebook. My form improved, but everything else suffered.

Why Blackbox VR Works

Blackbox VR was such an eye opener when I joined. All the things that don't work for me are gone. All the things that do work for me are amplified. For the first time, I actually look forward to exercise because it's something that feels made for me. There's an extended page going into the thinking behind the workout, and it all makes sense.

Blackbox VR is a room 10 feet by 10 feet, with a closing door. There's a fan that projects down into the room right where I'm standing. I can occasionally hear other people, but there's no-one watching me or trying to talk to me. It's just me. There's nothing to wipe down – the VR headset goes in a "fogging" chamber that disinfects and cleans it after use, and the wrist tags just touch the bands.

I have a clear goal and no distractions. I'm not tempted to look at a cellphone. I may not get an endorphin high from exercise, but I do get a high from winning a game. The iPhone app will show me my workout log afterwards along with progression charts, and give me an idea of what I did – it rewards me by giving upgrades to minions based on a repeating "streak" of workouts, and gives access to a rotating card deck of upgradable champions and powerups.

The VR headset shows me where my hands are and where they should be. There's a video right in front of me showing what me should do. If I have bad form or are misaligned then a tone will sound and my attack will be cancelled. The machine won't let me do more than 20 reps. I've been tired after exercising, but it's never wiped me out completely, and my DOMS is much more managable now.

I don't have to track anything. The machine knows exactly how much resistance to give me, and will keep track of my weight and reps at all times. I don't have to remember a single thing.

The machine will add weight incrementally as I build strength. Progressive overload is built into the system.

And finally, I have choices. There's no such thing as leg day. There are some attacks that work better against particular enemies, so fire attacks are strong against air based enemies. In practice, I usually vary exercises because it lets me rest and recover for another set, but there's nothing stopping me from doing all squats all the time if I felt like it.