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Can Virtual Reality Help Life with MS?

Living Well

February 21, 2023

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Illustration by Brittany England

Illustration by Brittany England

by Kathy Reagan Young

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Medically Reviewed by:

Gregory Minnis, DPT

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•••••

by Kathy Reagan Young

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Medically Reviewed by:

Gregory Minnis, DPT

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Regular use adds a fun new way to exercise, and may also help relieve MS symptoms like pain and fatigue.

I hate exercise. Seriously. I HATE it. For me, “exercise” conjures a picture of going to a gym and lifting weights. And I am not at all interested in that.

However, I recognize how important it is to keep moving. This is true for everyone, but especially for those of us with multiple sclerosis (MS). So, I needed to find movement that was fun. I do walk several times each week, and I dance around my house more often now that I’m an empty-nester and don’t have kids at home anymore to embarrass (I miss that).

Still, I would like to find an enjoyable way to move every day. Solving this conundrum has always seemed impossible; either I would have to deal with boring exercise or wither into my MS-y body. Neither option was a good one.

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A new option

Then my friend told me about her latest obsession: virtual reality (VR) workouts. What? I’m intrigued. Go on …

I learned that virtual reality uses computers to generate realistic 3D environments that people can interact with, using special equipment like a helmet or headset with a screen and gloves with electronic sensors.

My friend had purchased the Meta Quest 2 (formerly known as the Oculus Quest 2), a VR headset with a screen.

It came with some preinstalled apps for games (mostly demos), but you can download a ton of other apps for things like what I was looking for: fun movement and meditation. You can also “visit” spectacular destinations around the world, either as an activity on its own or as background while you’re working out.

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The science of virtual reality

As my friend was explaining to me how she uses her VR headset, I remembered a podcast interview I did a couple of years ago with a spokesman for a VR company that was working with the MS Center at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle. They were developing a VR program they hoped would help manage MS pain and fatigue without being addictive or invasive.

I went back and listened to that podcast episode. We talked about the potential that VR has to help regenerate neuronal pathways. Indeed, researchers have noted that VR can activate the brain’s plasticity, perhaps leading to better limb mobility, balance, and cognition, and less pain and anxiety.

I couldn’t wait to explore all the possibilities. And after the fun I had on my friend’s Meta Quest 2, I went right home and ordered one for myself. At $400, it’s not cheap, but for me, having something available anytime, anywhere, to exercise my body and my mind was worth it. Besides, when you consider that the average gym membership 5 years ago cost $58 a month — or nearly $700 a year! — it seemed like a bargain.

Total immersion

From the moment I put on my new headset, I loved it. I was immediately in a completely immersive virtual environment, which I could change at will.

My favorite is the “ski lodge.” It looks like I’m sitting in a cabin overlooking a mountain resort. I look up see the cabin’s ceiling. I look to the left and see a gondola moving up and down the mountain. To my right are more snow-covered mountains, and behind me is the room that I’m sitting in — with a crackling fire, soft lighting, and multiple windows under a soaring rooftop. No matter where I look, it supports the illusion, and I truly feel like I’m in that ski lodge.

I feel incredibly relaxed just from spending time in any of the “environments.” Others included in the Meta Quest 2 are a crystal atrium, a space station, a ryokan retreat, a desert terrace, and more.

These options are wonderful for me because I work from home, which means I see the same things every day. It can feel like a neverending loop of sameness. But when I slip on the VR headset, I truly feel like I’m in whatever environment is on the screen. It’s almost like I can go on vacation at any time. I’m honestly a little surprised when I take off the headset to find myself in my own home!

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Boxing at Machu Picchu

When I’m done relaxing and want some movement, I use a fitness app on the headset. I subscribed to one called Supernatural VR for $18 a month.

In this app, I can select different workouts. Each workout has its own preloaded destination, and fantastic accompanying music (and you can select the genre.) The “destinations” are breathtaking. I’ve boxed at Machu Picchu and meditated at Mirror Lake in Yosemite National Park, just by putting on my headset.

A favorite workout involves hitting balloons using different colored sabers in each of my hands. The balloons can come at the same time, separately, or even across my body. It’s as much of a mental workout as a physical workout. I occasionally scream as I miss the balloons, but mostly I laugh at how much silly fun I’m having.

The “destinations” are breathtaking. I’ve boxed at Machu Picchu and meditated at Mirror Lake in Yosemite National Park, just by putting on my headset.

In addition to the balloon-swatting game, the app also includes boxing, meditation, and stretching modules. But you’re not left to fend totally for yourself. The app also features several coaches — real people who appear on screen in gorgeous VR settings for warmups and cool-downs and to offer encouragement throughout your workout.

Settings allow you to control things like volume and difficulty. I started at the “low intensity” setting, which means those balloons come at me a bit more slowly than in the other levels. I’ve only dared to try the medium intensity once — and that was much faster. I can’t even imagine getting to the high intensity workout. But, with enough practice, who knows?

Other apps offer different kinds of experiences, ranging from skydiving and underwater exploration to art creation and mini-golf.

My new reality

I’ve noticed that I feel relaxed, with much less anxiety, after each “session.” I’m sleeping better, and my fatigue and cog fog have decreased. And I’m having fun while exercising — something I thought I’d forgotten how to do!

I love my VR set so much that I even took it with me on a recent trip to visit friends. All I had to do was change the WiFi on the headset and “draw” the parameters of the room I was using it in by using my hand controllers, and voila! — I was transported, having fun, and moving.

VR sets offer more than just fitness apps, however. On Meta Quest 2, you can participate in multiplayer games and social experiences, like joining friends for a watch party of your favorite show — virtually! You can watch 3D movies, Netflix, and YouTube; discover faraway places on Google Earth; and dial down your anxiety and dial in an intended mood with guided (or unguided) meditation. There’s so much to see and do, all from this one piece of equipment. It’s like I’ve found a whole new world that helps my body, my mind, and my social world.

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A word of caution

Even though I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time in the VR world, some people report feeling dizzy, disoriented, or experiencing motion sickness when using a VR unit. Often this effect is immediate, but sometimes it occurs after having been immersed in the VR world for a time.

You may be able to minimize this by opening windows to get fresh air, or by using essential oils, ginger, or certain antihistamines to reduce nausea. If you know you have issues with motion sickness, I suggest you try it out first to be sure it’s a pleasurable experience. Select Best Buy stores have Meta representatives available on weekends for demos and to answer any questions. Additionally, Meta offers a 30-day money-back return policy.

The takeaway

I’m now an evangelist for VR for people with chronic illness, and with MS in particular. People with various mobility levels could get both enjoyment and movement from VR. And, the feeling of being “elsewhere” would be beneficial to anyone.

I’m thrilled to have found a one-stop shop for movement, meditation, and entertainment. I’m transported from my everyday life whenever I want to be. And my health, both physical and mental, is benefitting because of my newfound love for virtual reality. And let’s face it, reality hasn’t exactly been great lately. I welcome the chance to escape it. Bonus that it’s a healthy escape.

Medically reviewed on February 21, 2023

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About the author

Kathy Reagan Young

Kathy Reagan Young is a prominent patient advocate and the founder of two innovative organizations, FUMSnow.com and PatientsGettingPaid.com. She has become a leading voice in patient advocacy, driven by her personal experience with multiple sclerosis and having founded the Patients Getting Paid membership community to help people with chronic illness find and create work that both accommodates their health and generates an income. You can also find her on Facebook.

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