JUN 30, 2022 10:00 AM PDT

Virtual reality training can reduce psychosocial stress and anxiety for individuals with limited mobility

Exercising has profound benefits physically, but it can also have enormous benefits for your mental health, as well. This includes improved mood and sleep, relieving depression symptoms, anti-anxiety treatment, reduce symptoms of ADHD, and even help treat PTSD and the trauma associated with it. Other mental health benefits include sharper memory, higher self-esteem, more energy, and stronger resilience. But what about individuals with limited mobility, and how can they receive the same health benefits of exercise as everyone else?

In a recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers from Tohoku University’s Smart-Aging Research Center suggest that virtual reality exercise induces the same physical and psychological benefits as normal exercise. This means those with limited mobility may be able to improve their mental well-being through the use of virtual reality.

Physical exercise benefits our overall well-being. But for some, physical exercise is not feasible, or even too dangerous. This includes neurological patients, people suffering from cardiovascular disease, and hospitalized patients. However, similar exercise effects may be brought about using Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR).

While initially designed for entertainment, IVR has attracted interest from the academic community due to its potential use for clinical purposes, since it allows the user to experience a virtual world through a virtual body, also known as an avatar.

In previous study, the same researchers found that looking at a moving virtual body displayed in first-person perspective induces physiological changes, such increased/decreased heart rates that were coherent with the virtual movements, even though the young participants remained physically still during the experience. It was also discovered that acute cognitive and neural benefits occurred, just like after real physical activity.

In a followup study on healthy elderly subjects, these same benefits were also found after 20-minute sessions that occurred twice a week for six weeks.

In the current study, the researchers added another level to the beneficial effects of virtual training by exploring the effect on stress. Young healthy subjects, while sitting physically still, experienced a 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 a decreased psychosocial stress response and lower levels of anxiety after the virtual training, comparable to what happens after real exercise.

"Psychosocial stress represents the stress experienced in frequent social situations such as social judgment, rejection, and when our performances get evaluated," says Professor Dalila Burin, who developed the study. "While a moderate amount of exposure to stress might be beneficial, repeated and increased exposure can be detrimental to our health. This kind of virtual training represents a new frontier, especially in countries like Japan, where high performance demands and an aging population exist."

What other benefits can virtual reality offer for humanity? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: Help Guide, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

MS in Geological Sciences
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.
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