Add virtual reality to exercise to ease chronic pain

Using a novel bike system, researchers found that when people combined VR with cycling, their exercise enjoyment increased by 20%, and they exercised for 15% longer. For patients with chronic pain, the technology distracts them from their condition, enabling them to engage in exercise and improve their recovery, they say.

Exercises guidelines recommend Australians exercise for half-an-hour, eat at least three to five times per week. But statistics show only one in five people meet this goal. Meanwhile, there are 3.4 million people living with chronic pain nationwide.

“Being active is essential for people to stay physically and mentally fit and healthy, but it’s also incredibly important for helping people both recover from injuries and manage chronic conditions such as arthritis,” says PhD candidate Erin MacIntyre.

“We also know that exercise can play an important role in rehabilitation, often reducing pain and disability.

“But the challenge is that there are often barriers to exercise – many find it boring, or say that it requires too much effort, or can be painful. So, we’ve been looking at ways to help overcome these barriers.”

Combing VR with cycling, when a rider began exercising with a VR headset on, it made them feel like they were riding in a digital countryside. The VR experience distracted cyclists from the exertion of exercise and made it feel easier, which both increased enjoyment and engagement, the study found.

The study used a stationary bike system with a head-mounted VR display. The system was wirelessly linked to a bespoke VR program that allowed for remote control of the stationary bike’s resistance, as well as the ability to record how hard participants were working. Participants rode the VR bike for up to 30 minutes but were able to end their session early for any reason.

Senior researcher, Associate Professor Tasha Stanton, says the VR bike system offers a safe, valid, and credible intervention for improving exercise engagement in clinical settings.

“This is a great first step for exploring VR in clinical settings. Our preliminary findings demonstrate the effectiveness of VR to improve both engagement and enjoyment of exercise, even in people who are experiencing chronic pain, she says.

“While more research is needed, we are confident that VR will be more broadly adopted to support health and rehabilitation goals.”

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