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This virtual reality workout is my go-to on days I don't want to exercise

FitXR brings virtual reality boxing and dance classes to your living room. Here's what happened when I tried it.
After two days of dance and boxing workouts, my back, arms and butt were noticeably sore.
After two days of dance and boxing workouts, my back, arms and butt were noticeably sore.TODAY Illustration / Brianna Steinhilber
/ Source: TMRW

We all have those days when trying to exercise is more like pulling teeth.

That’s one of the reasons why I was a fan of virtual reality workouts when I first gave them a try on the Oculus headset. They feel less like workouts and more like fun activities. So when I stumbled across the FitXR app, which brings boxing and dance cardio to the headset, I was excited to give another VR fitness experience a try.

The basics: cost and equipment

You'll need an Oculus Quest headset and two handheld controllers, which will run you $299. The headset, which can be used to access tons of apps (not just workouts), was a hot item this holiday season, so someone in your family may have received it for gaming, and now you can borrow it for a workout.

You then need to download the FitXR app, which costs $29.99 and comes with a starter pack of workouts. There are in-app purchases available to add more workout “packs,” which cost $9.99 each.

Beyond that, all you need is a space large enough to move around freely. The headset will set boundaries for any size space, but I found it hard to stay within my boundaries (especially during the dance workouts) — so I’d recommend finding the most space possible in your home. Or even take it outside ... as long you don't mind giving your neighbors some entertainment.

Navigating the app

The app interface looks like you’re in the lobby of a swanky Equinox gym. After being stuck at home for a year, I appreciated the feeling of attending a fitness class in studio. Once you’re in the app, there are two types of workouts to choose from: boxing or dance. You can then filter the workout library by length (short, medium or long), instructor, music genre and intensity. They also have a class of the day featured prominently on the dashboard.

Once you select a class, you’re brought into the virtual studio. You can see the outline of other members taking the class along with you, which is a cool feature and helps create the environment of a group fitness class. You have the option of taking your class in two different surroundings: the boxing studio (a gym setting) or the sky park (an urban rooftop environment).

During every class, there is a large dashboard that keeps a running tally of your points during the workout, including streak count (the number of moves you nail in a row) and your real-time ranking on the leaderboard. To be honest, once I got going I was too focused on hitting every target to keep track of the dashboard, but it is helpful at the end when you’re able to see your calories burned, your longest streak and your final ranking on the leaderboard.

Your view inside a boxing workout — get ready to duck under the "flying saucer."

What the workout entails: Boxing

As someone who loves boxing — and incorporates it regularly into my routine — I was really intrigued to see how the workout would be using virtual reality, so I started there.

There is a three-minute tutorial where a virtual trainer shows you proper stance and teaches you the six punches you'll use in the workout. You earn points for hitting targets that fly at you with speed and accuracy, while also squatting and dodging flying “saucers.”

With the tutorial under my belt, I moved on to my first workout. I chose a moderate intensity, medium length (15 minutes) workout to pop music. Before you start, you can choose whether you would like to include squats in the workout, which I thought was a nice feature. I checked the box to include them, but liked that I had the option to remove the lower body work on days when I was too tired or sore.

My initial reaction was that it felt really similar feel to working one-on-one with a trainer at a boxing gym who is leading you through combos with punch mitts. But it's a special kind of satisfaction hitting the flying targets and watching them explode, feeling the rumble in your gloves and hearing the sound of them exploding.

I found myself squatting much deeper to get under the obstacles than I would during a standard workout.

It took me a few minutes to realize that it wasn’t my accuracy that was triggering “streaks,” but my punch intensity, so I turned up the power and quickly became out of breath and sweaty. I later found out you can change this in settings and have the option of two modes: explosive mode, which tracks your power, or training mode, which tracks any successful punch (but they could have made that clearer). Explosive mode forced me to get my whole body engaged and created a really good cardio workout, so I left it as it was. I started feeling a twinge in my lower back, so I made a mental note to keep form in mind.

It’s also a mental workout. The targets fly at you fast and your reaction time is definitely put to the test. I was having so much fun that I kind of wrote it off as more of a rest day. But when I woke up the next morning, I realized I was wrong. My butt and upper back were noticeably sore before I even got out of bed.

The next time I put on the headset I decided to purchase the “absolute boxing” add-on, which gave me additional classes that combine HIIT cardio and muscle endurance. These workouts were noticeably more difficult, so you should expect to shell out some money for additional packs if you want tougher workouts added to your library.

After these harder workouts, I was drenched in sweat. I actually had to take the headset off at one point and dry off the lenses with a towel because they were so fogged up! But it was less painful to get through than a traditional HIIT workout because I was so mentally absorbed in the gaming aspect of it that the time flew by. The next day I was feeling it even more in my upper back and glutes.

The interface of the dance workout feels like you're in a group fitness class.

What the workout entails: Dance

I have never been someone who enjoys dance cardio so I’ll admit I was hesitant to try the dance studio on the app.

I liked that they had an instructor front and center demonstrating the moves. The verbal instructions were pretty easy to follow, even for someone as dance challenged as me, and the set up really does feel like you’re in a group fitness class with an instructor at the front.

When I found the three-minute intro class intense, I knew I was out of my league. I’ll freely admit that it didn't look pretty. I felt, and I’m sure I looked, like a flailing octopus. I couldn't keep up and literally never got a streak over one. (To clarify: that means I never hit two moves accurately in a row.) The upside is that I was home alone, so there wasn’t a class of people to feel subconscious in front of. Beyond that, I couldn't even see myself in a mirror, so it really took all of the self-criticism out of the workout.

It felt a lot like Dance Dance Revolution, but instead of tracking your feet, it tracks the movements of your hands and head.

I didn't always nail the dance moves, but it was fun to let go of the quest for perfection and have fun.

Next I tried a seven-minute, light intensity dance class. With grapevines and jumping dance moves with arm swings, I had a hard time staying in my bounds and kept getting dinged with the boundary line popping up on the screen, which was distracting. The instructors repeat dance combinations and as they start to feel familiar, it became easier to keep up.

If you're someone who enjoys dance cardio classes or games like DDR you could get really lost in this; I'm just not that person. I do think this could be a really fun way to work up a sweat without feeling like you're exercising. And I will admit, it forced me not to take myself too seriously and just let go a bit.

I see how this would be addicting to someone who enjoys dancing. If you’re someone like me who isn’t good at it, but wants to get better, this also offers a no-pressure way to practice free of judgment or the need to be self-conscious.

Pros

I started trying the app on a Sunday when I wasn’t going to workout otherwise. I was feeling pretty lazy and unmotivated, and there is a pretty low barrier to entry with this workout. You can select super short routines (I am talking six minutes short) and it’s easy to quickly get lost in the gaming aspect — you start with a few minutes and then emerge from the headset an hour later, sweaty and out of breath.

I liked that the app had a wide range of trainers from which to choose and that the workouts all felt different, as they would if you were taking classes at a gym. I also think I punched harder then in straight shadow-boxing workouts since you get wrapped up in the satisfaction of “exploding” the targets.

I would definitely continue to keep this app in my fitness rotation for days when I'm feeling really lazy and sluggish, but otherwise I'll stick to the boxing studio. The dance workouts just aren't for me, which isn’t a reflection of the app as much as it's my own personal preference.

Cons

The app is a bit pricey. The initial $29.99 isn’t bad when you consider that’s the price of one class at a boutique fitness studio, but you do have to buy add-on packs to get a larger library and get access to more challenging workout routines, and those can add up.

There’s not much of a warm-up or cool down included in the workouts (the dance studio is a bit better with this, but still limited), so I would definitely recommend starting with an easy level workout to warm up, and doing your own stretch routine to cool down.

It was also easy for me to get so wrapped up in hitting targets that I totally forgot about my form — until I started feeling it in my back. It’s hard to keep up with faster combos and accuracy while hitting targets and it sometimes came at the expense of my form.

I also would’ve liked to have some longer workout options. The longest one is 20 minutes. So if you want to get in a 30 or 45-minute workout, you will have to put together multiple separate workouts on your own.

I would recommend this workout to:

  • People who are out of shape and want to ease back into fitness
  • People who are having a lazy day and are looking for motivation
  • Serious sweat junkies who want to throw some novelty into their routine
  • Anyone who finds traditional workouts boring
  • Those who are tired of working out in their living room and miss group fitness classes