Sitting all day ruined my health. VR saved me.
You probably don’t know me. I’m not a famous writer.
But I have worked on some famous games, such as Injustice 2 and Mortal Kombat 11. This story isn’t about writing fighting games, though. It’s about how my sedentary, workaholic writing habits made me overweight, and slower and weaker than I should have been. And how it rapidly went downhill from there.
Then I’m going to tell you how I fought back.
Putting your ass in the chair
“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
—Mary Heaton Vorse, circa 1911
Ask any professional writer for the secret of their success, and there’s a good chance they’ll respond with some variation of the above advice. It was passed down to me by my Aunt Nene, updated for the contemporary generation as “the secret of writing is ass in chair.”
Ass-in-chair produces results, as a method. But it can weaken and destroy your body in practice, which is exactly what happened to your humble narrator. I spent 10 to 16 hours a day with my ass in a chair, writing — or often trying and failing to write — comic books and video games from 2014 through 2016. Every day I woke up, put my ass in the chair, worked in my chair, ate in my chair and, for all intents and purposes, lived in my chair.
I gained about 20 pounds in those two years, and I wasn’t happy with myself. I tried changing my eating habits, but dieting alone wouldn’t take the fat off. I had to exercise.
The trouble was that the more I exercised, the more pain I felt in my lower back, which zapped me with searing bolts of lightning whenever I jumped, ran, climbed, or swam. I needed to be more active, but I was capable of doing less and less. Even sitting became painful, which caused me to order a standing desk and finally see a doctor, but it was too late.
When I couldn’t ignore it anymore
It was January 2017. I was alone at home, standing in my kitchen, waiting for a tea kettle to boil, when I coughed. A fiery lightning bolt pierced my lower back. The pain shot down through my toes and swept my legs out from under me. Everything flashed white. Then I found myself on the floor, immobile and in worse pain than I’ve ever known.
An MRI confirmed the culprits: two herniated discs in my lumbar spine. I couldn’t sit, drive, or do much of anything comfortably for months. I had no paid time off as a freelancer, so my only option was to write while standing up. It felt unnatural at first, but I adapted.
I now prefer to tell up-and-coming writers that the secret to writing is habitually applying words to blank pages, in whichever position works for you.
Putting my work together was easy enough, though. The harder part was putting myself back together.
My road to recovery
I remained in constant pain, despite the advantages of my standing desk. I couldn’t pick up my baby boy without throwing out my back. I couldn’t help my wife carry heavy groceries or luggage. I felt like a prisoner in my own body.
My terrible American health insurance covered the most commonly recommended treatments for herniated discs and sciatica: painkillers, painful surgeries, and more painkillers. Popping pills sounded like a great way to destroy my life with an opiate addiction, so I went my own way in search of more sensible solutions. Those solutions ended up being long-term physical therapy, medical marijuana for pain, and, ultimately, virtual reality.
Physical therapy involved a range of treatments, but the most important elements were the exercises assigned by my trainer, which I repeated daily. Our objective was to build a girdle of strong core muscles that could lift and hold my torso indefinitely. I became strong enough to sit comfortably for up to an hour or two within four months of the fatal cough.
My gains were plateauing, however. My blood pressure and heart rate were high, and I couldn’t lose the last 10 of the 20 pounds I’d gained. I needed cardiovascular exercise, but attempts at running, cycling, rowing, and swimming resulted in agony and suffering. I had strengthened my core, but other areas of my body were still weak and prone to injury. It was a frustrating cycle.
Entering the Rift
I needed full-body, high-intensity cardio activity that would not aggravate my back. I found it by accident, while experimenting with the Oculus Rift.
Trying Batman: Arkham VR with PS Move controllers on the floor of E3 2016 had awakened me as a VR evangelist. The level of immersion achievable in VR was beyond audiovisual in nature. It was visceral and physiological. I immediately started saving to build a PC that could handle VR.
I bought myself an Oculus Rift six months after my injury, and rearranged my office to make space for a room-scale VR setup, with IR sensors posted in three corners to track my movement.
I played for hours my first night, sampling a bunch of great games that I still recommend today: Lone Echo, Robo Recall, Space Pirate Trainer, and The Climb, a rock-climbing game which lets anyone indulge their inner Alex Honnold and free solo their way up some intimidating mountains.
My back, shoulders, legs, and arms all became sore the next day. Not injured sore, but post-workout recovery sore. Maybe I hadn’t fixed a real space station, fought an army of robots, or scaled Siberian glaciers, but my body seemed to think it was real enough. This more than playing games. It was rehab.
I played The Climb every other day. Stretching from one ledge to another, or pulling myself up to the next grip, I’d pretend I was there and flex my muscles to create dynamic tension, applying authentic effort to virtual challenges. I had to ice my shoulders after every climb.
My scores in The Climb were limited by my relative weakness and pain, not the game mechanics. I didn’t just “feel” my strength and agility developing in the next weeks, I demonstrated that development by beating my own high scores again and again.
Sites like VR Fitness Insider, VR Institute of Health and Exercise (VR IHE), and the /Oculus subreddit helped me find additional exercise-worthy games. Three games caught my eye for notoriously punishing out-of-shape players with high-intensity cardio activity:
The first was Holopoint, an archery game that involves so much ducking and dodging that I still haven’t beaten the game after playing for two years. 20 minutes in Holopoint makes for one hell of a leg day.
Next was Thrill of the Fight, a boxing simulator so intense that it produces comparable activity levels to rowing. I’ve always wanted to box, but I won’t risk throwing hands in real life due to my carpal tunnel and the sport’s potential for concussions. This caution felt wise after the first time I stepped into the virtual ring.
I lasted all of three rounds before getting knocked out in that first match. Maybe I hadn’t been absorbing body shots in real life, but I’d been working. I was gassed, drenched in sweat, with my heart pounding out of my chest. The muscle aches lasted almost a week.
Finally, there was Audioshield, a rhythm game in which your shielded hands block and swipe beats out of the sky as they fly at you. Think Guitar Hero meets boxing. Audioshield was addictive. The combination of rhythmic gameplay, psychedelic graphics, and physical activity was like doing SoulCycle on LSD.
But tragedy struck. Some glitch caused my Touch controllers to stop producing rumble while playing Audioshield, even though they worked fine on every other game. Being unable to feel the strike of the beats against my hands made Audioshield impossible to play. I turned to BoxVR, a cardio-boxing game,as a replacement.
BoxVR, Holopoint, and Thrill of the Fight became the pillars of my daily VR workouts. Holopoint strengthened my legs, Thrill of the Fight strengthened my upper body, and BoxVR was my cardio workout. I used a heart rate monitor to track physiological metrics alongside gameplay. I lost a few more pounds, and my average standing heart rate dropped from 85 bpm to 78 bpm.
Although BoxVR joined Holopoint and Thrill of the Fight as a permanent fixture in my workouts, it could not recreate the rhythmic flow conjured by a sublime session of Audioshield, which had been my perfect workout. Would I ever fall in love like that again?
The answer was no. Instead of falling in love, I was about to find religion.
The gospel of Beat Saber
If Audioshield was Guitar Hero mixed with boxing, then Beat Saber is Guitar Hero mixed with the Jedi arts. It’s the high-intensity, low-impact holy grail of cardio.
You play while standing on a platform in a neon-lit industrial void. There’s a red plasma-saber in your left hand, and a blue plasma-saber in your right. Beats fly toward you in red and blue boxes as your choice of music plays. You have to slice each box in half, while matching your saber colors to the colors of the beats.
I used short, tight motions to play at first, until I found that a perfect 50/50 slice and a 150-degree arc on each swing would maximize my score. The beats came at me so quickly in later levels that I had to master complex swing patterns, two-handed slashes, crossovers, and drumlike trill strokes. Energy walls sometimes flew at me with the beats, forcing me to squat and dodge while swinging my sabers.
Beat Saber became the new centerpiece of my daily routine. I played it for over an hour on my best days, swinging through songs again and again to master them as the sweat fell on my yoga mat. I found myself catching a runner’s high about 40 to 50 minutes into most sessions, causing the whole world to melt away as the Force flowed through my body, guiding my sabers to their beats. No aches, no pains, and no strains. Just pure, kinetic flow.
Optimizing my Beat Saber sessions required optimizing everything outside of the game. I diversified my VR workouts and supplemented them with a DDP Yoga subscription to build joint support and range of motion. I finally prioritized eight hours of sleep each night, and stuck with a diet with lots of proteins, healthy fats, and vegetables instead of excess carbs and sugar. Fortunately, I can burn enough calories to earn a scoop of ice cream most days.
I have ascended the Beat Saber ranks from D scores to S scores, from relatively accessible Expert levels to astonishingly difficult Expert+ challenges. I’ve even sliced my way onto the Expert+ leaderboards among the top 150 best players in a few songs. I’m still pushing against my physical limits, day after day, and getting better.
It’s now been over two years since I coughed and hit the kitchen floor. How am I doing?
- average standing heart rate, January 2017: 85-90 bpm
- average standing heart rate, April 2019: 67-72 bpm
- weight, January 2017: 216 pounds
- weight, April 2019: 201 pounds
- average daily workout, January 2017: 0 minutes, 0 calories
- average daily workout, April 2019: 45 minutes, 500 calories (minimum)
I never reached my goal weight of 196 pounds, but that’s because I’ve replaced most of the extra fat with muscle fiber. At 35 years old, I feel and look better than I have in 10 years.
My back still hurts, sometimes quite a bit. I exercise until it feels better.
I can pick up my son again. Despite being two years older and several pounds heavier, I can hug him, carry him, play with him, and enjoy myself. I’m also there to help my wife literally and figuratively carry the load of parenting, housework, or heavy objects.
Working out in VR gave me my life and dignity back. And I’m not alone. Miraculous stories appear on blogs, Reddit, and community forums, telling of people with health issues far more severe than my own, who are changing their real-life bodies using current-gen VR.
The common thread in so many of these stories, besides Beat Saber, is that so many of us have spent too long living, working, and playing in sedentary states. Rates of obesity, heart disease, and work-related repetitive stress injuries are all on the rise.
Humanity has not survived, adapted, and evolved for tens of thousands of years to turn into house plants. We can’t go on like this, and we won’t.
The revolution may be virtual
If you’re reading this and thinking that you could use less ass-in-chair time, I recommend acquiring any VR system that lets you play Beat Saber. I prefer my Oculus Rift, but you can break a sweat whether you have the Rift, Vive, PSVR, or Windows Mixed Reality.
If you’ve been injured or inactive for a long time, keep in mind that my recovery began with the guidance of my family doctor and the team at Forward Motion Physical Therapy in Los Angeles. By investing in their counsel, I avoided compounding my back problems with additional injuries.
I’m honestly grateful for my herniated discs. They exposed the delusion of my ass-in-chair mentality, forcing me to make healthier choices. Beat Saber and VR workouts have made me better, faster, and stronger. I am fighting the specter of impending disabilities with every beat I slice.
Don’t wait around for the global VR fitness revolution to come. So many of us are making it work right now.
Shawn Kittelsen is a freelance writer and narrative designer. Most recently, he’s served as narrative lead and co-writer of Mortal Kombat 11 for NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games. He wants young writers to know that he completed his work on MK11 without once applying the seat of his pants to the seat of a chair.
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