Everyone understands that exercise has both physical and psychological benefits. According to a new study, virtual reality exercise has similar effects, implying that those with limited mobility may be able to improve their mental well-being.
Previous research has shown that virtual training has immediate cognitive and neural benefits. A new study, based on those findings, suggests that similar virtual training can also reduce psychosocial stress and anxiety. The findings were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health by researchers from Tohoku University’s Smart-Aging Research Center (IDAC).
Physical exercise benefits our overall well-being. But for some – such as neurological patients, people suffering from cardiovascular disease, and hospitalized patients – physical exercise is not feasible, or even too dangerous. However, similar effects may be brought about using Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR).
Psychosocial stress represents the stress experienced in common social situations such as social judgment, rejection, and when our performances are evaluated. While a moderate amount of stress may be beneficial, repeated and increased stress can be harmful to our health. This type of virtual training represents a new frontier, particularly in countries with high performance demands and an aging population, such as Japan.Professor Dalila Burin
Despite being initially designed for entertainment, IVR has piqued the academic community’s interest due to its potential clinical applications, as it allows the user to experience a virtual world through a virtual body.
In a previous study, the researchers discovered that looking at a moving virtual body displayed in first-person perspective causes physiological changes. Even though the young participants remained motionless, their heart rates increased and decreased in sync with the virtual movements. As a result, acute cognitive and neural benefits occurred, just as they would after physical activity.
The same benefits were found in a follow-up study on healthy elderly subjects after 20-minute sessions twice a week for six weeks.
In the current study, the researchers explored the effect on stress, adding another level to the beneficial effects of virtual training. Young healthy subjects, while sitting still, experienced virtual training displayed from the first-person perspective, creating the illusion of ownership over movements.
The avatar ran at 6.4 km/h for 30 minutes. Before and after the virtual training, the researchers induced and assessed the psychosocial stress response by measuring the salivary alpha-amylase — a crucial biomarker indicating the levels of neuroendocrine stress. Similarly, they distributed a subjective questionnaire for anxiety.
The results showed that after the virtual training, there was a decreased psychosocial stress response and lower levels of anxiety, similar to what happens after physical exercise.
“Psychosocial stress represents the stress experienced in common social situations such as social judgment, rejection, and when our performances are evaluated,” says the study’s creator, Professor Dalila Burin. “While a moderate amount of stress may be beneficial, repeated and increased stress can be harmful to our health. This type of virtual training represents a new frontier, particularly in countries with high performance demands and an aging population, such as Japan.”