How one man lost over 50 pounds playing a VR game

Fitness isn't the most advertised use for VR, but Telltale's Job Stauffer says it saved his life.

Usually when I speak with Job Stauffer, Telltale’s head of creative communications, it’s to ask questions about the Telltale games he creatively communicates about. This time, however, I got Stauffer on the phone for a totally unrelated reason: to ask him how he lost 50 pounds by punching music.

A few weeks ago, Stauffer triumphantly tweeted, "Today I've OFFICIALLY lost over 50lbs in 5 months using VR," setting off a wave of congratulations and questions and messages from excited VR companies, surely interested in the marketing angle. The eternal struggle to get in shape, and enjoy getting in shape, had a new hope.

There is no magic solution to weight loss, however much miracle systems are sold to us. Stauffer notes that his success also included limiting his calorie intake and drinking more water, but he does credit Soundboxing—an HTC Vive game that’s also in beta for the Oculus Rift—with the majority of his accomplishment. “It genuinely saved my life,” says Stauffer.

In Soundboxing, players load up YouTube music videos, then hit colored orbs to the beat with their hands, some high and some low, so there’s full body movement. The routines—when and where to punch—are created by users and stored in an ever expanding library. I’ve played it, starting with the obvious choice of song, Eye of the Tiger, and I can confirm that it’s a genuine workout. Once I got into it, I was doing a full-body ‘dance’ that probably looked dumb as hell but moved me as well as any Jazzercise routine might have.

It’s obviously a privilege to own a VR system. The HTC Vive is $800, not including the PC you need to run VR games. At that price there can be no VR fitness revolution. But on a personal level, Stauffer’s story is inspiring. He’s healthier today than he was six months ago, when he weighed over 300 pounds and his doctor gave him a disastrous outlook. "Look, you need to get in shape or you’re gonna die," Stauffer recalls. 

Epic’s Tim Sweeney thinks that, in 20 years, your average smartphone will produce convincing virtual reality worlds. Absent some other revolution in the way we work and live, VR's unexpected fitness angle could become one of its primary purposes in the future.

I spoke to Stauffer last week about how he discovered his VR workout, the challenge of exercising when overweight, and why virtual reality worked for him. Read our chat below, which has been edited for length.

PC Gamer: What didn’t work for you about previous fitness games?

I didn’t like the way I looked when I was doing workout videos.

Job Stauffer: I liken that to the idea of workout videos. I was raised by four older sisters, and I remember back in the ‘80s seeing them working out to VHS tapes of Richard Simmons Sweatin’ to the Oldies, and just seeing all the workout fads come and go. And it was always this idea that you’re going to put something on TV and you’re going to watch it and you’re going to mimic it. All you have to do is do what they do, and it’s so simple! The reality is, you’re standing in front of your TV, you’re watching someone working out, and you’re trying your best to keep up, but your brain is trying to focus on the screen, but you’re almost too aware of your body, and I was always very self-conscious. I didn’t like the way I looked when I was doing workout videos. I didn’t like the fact that no matter what I did the video kept going and I didn’t have an exact frame of reference of where to move my body, because my body is different from the bodies I’m seeing on screen. 

And that idea kind of translated to a lot of the workout games we’ve seen over the years. Wii Fit in particular was nice for breathing exercises and weighing in every other day, but I never really used it for anything beyond that, because it felt like I was kind of fighting the technology, fighting the Wiimote to get all the movements right, and feeling like everything I was doing with my body wasn’t even being registered, and feeling like some of the moves were being missed. And I’m also standing in our living room, looking at our TV, distracted by everything else going on, distracted by the self-consciousness of what I might look like as I’m doing this thing in front of a TV.

So VR helped you get over that self-consciousness?

The great thing is, when you have the visor on and you’re in a space, just even the grid space where Soundboxing takes place, there's no one else around you.

Yeah, once I realized that—I mean, we’ve seen our friends and families using VR, and I think we all agree sometimes we look a little silly, but we always tell our friends, ‘Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry, of course you’re gonna look a little silly, because you’re wearing a virtual reality helmet and shooting things that aren’t there in my living room. It’s fine.’

As a VR enthusiast, kind of helping other people tear down their wall of anxiety and self-consciousness and just say, ‘No, no, no, just put it on and have fun’—I felt like I was able to do that with myself. ‘Just put on the visor, stop worrying about how silly you look, and just come to terms with the fact that it is now 2017 and you have a virtual reality system in your living room that lets you visit far off distant lands and also workout to any music video you’ve ever wanted to. It’s OK, let go of your self-consciousness.’

The great thing is, when you have the visor on and you’re in a space, just even the grid space where Soundboxing takes place, there's no one else around you. Even if there’s someone at the kitchen table next to you on the phone or eating dinner or whatever and you’re in this space, it lets you mentally separate. And just let that self-consciousness of what you look like kind of fade away.

And you can’t see your own body either in VR. There’s a self-consciousness even when you’re alone. 

I completely agree, and I’ve found that in particular with Kinect games and PlayStation Move games over the years, as I’m watching the screen you glance in the mirror in the living room and see how silly you might look, or even you might look down at your stomach and see your gut sticking out, and it’s just, ‘Aw man, this is gonna take forever, what am I doing?’ But once you’re in VR and your body mentally is kind of not—visually isn’t there, but physically it’s there. It kind of reduces the idea of exercise just to the physicality of it in your own head, at least in my own head. And it really helped me focus just on movement, and breathing, and my heart rate, and music. Having the body fade away, at the same time there was a technology that was engaging the body fully, felt like this magic combination that games and exercise have been waiting for for over 30 years.

So after losing 50 pounds-

It’s about 55 now, actually. 55 plus.

55 plus! So are you still playing Soundboxing every day?

Any day that I’m home. I actually remember I had gotten back last Thursday after like a 13 hour flight ... and I should’ve just gone to bed and taken a nap. I actually had something to do that night, but instead of taking a nap beforehand, I got home and threw on Soundboxing, because it had been a week. And I was like, ‘Aw man, I’ve got to get back to this!’ And I did it for an hour and a half. Instead of napping to get reenergized, I’m now in the mode where I need to exercise to get energy, and exercising does give you energy.

Is an hour and a half a typical length of a session? Did you start slower?

I definitely started slow. Initially when I loaded up Soundboxing it was a song, two songs, next session was like two or three. And I started to run 15 to 20 minutes, and that become 30 to 35, eventually that became 45 or an hour. And an hour is about what I typically do in a morning, before heading on into work, but if I have more time or I’m doing it later at night, I can go as long as 90 or more. It’s nice, because it starts to feel like high intensity interval training. Because you’ll put on a really fast song, and it’s like maybe three minutes 50 seconds or four minutes 15 seconds and it’s really fast paced, lots of notes to hit, lots of movements. And then you have this stoppage where, ‘OK, stop, breathe, take a drink of water, load up the next song.’ It doesn’t happen continuously for 90 minutes … Doing that repeatedly for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, an hour and a half, anything you can do, day or night, to just get your body moving, get your heart rate up and just feel better—it just, it works, and it works for me, and it continues to work. I absolutely love it.

Does sweat become a problem with a big headset on your face?

Anyone setting out to seriously work out in VR should first and foremost, before anything, make sure that they look into a VR cover replacement. The inserts that come with Oculus or Vive or anything really, they’re fabric, and they’re kind of this base fabric that you really don’t want to get a lot of sweat on. I don’t remember the name of the company, but I think it was $30 on Amazon, and it was called ‘VR Cover’ [probably this one] and it was kind of a more gym equipment-like pleatherish covering on it, that just makes it nice where you can sweat on it, it doesn’t bleed into the material. It doesn’t bleed into the visor either, there’s no condensation, no leaking, it gives you a nice seal around your eyebrows and your nose. And when you’re done you pull the thing off and obviously it’s going to be covered in sweat, just keep some Lysol wipes or antibacterial disposable wipes handy, and just wipe it down after every use just like gym equipment.

Did you make any other modifications to your setup for working out?

I bought one pound weighted gloves, so that’s an extra pound added to each hand. I’m actually looking at going up to two, maybe even more.

It’s like you’re getting into Muay Thai speed training now.

It’s a lot like—the more I was doing it, I remembered in the ‘90s, seeing all the infomercials for Tae Bo, and just seeing like, ‘OK, you’re just kind of standing and moving your arms and punching and working out to this music.’ But like, ‘I’m not really a big Billy Blanks fan, or I like my own music, and my own speed and my own pace.’ So something like that, where I’m kind of standing, kind of dancing, kind of rocking out, and it’s kind of punching—it is punching, but all that matters is, it’s moving, it’s fun, and it’s getting your heart rate up and it’s getting you to sweat. And that’s all I needed.

So now that you are where you are, 55 pounds lighter, are you adding other things to your workout, more traditional things? Do you feel like you have more freedom?

It’s like, ‘Well, I can’t do that because the weight limit on the exercise bike is 260, and I’m 300, wow, this sucks.’

I do, and I’ll say this to anyone else in a similar position to myself, where you feel like you’re at a starting point that is so high you really can’t do a traditional workout. A lot of people forget you can’t just—’OK, well, you’re over 300 pounds and you’re gonna just start doing this.’ It’s like, ‘Well, I can’t do that because the weight limit on the exercise bike is 260, and I’m 300, wow, this sucks.’

That’s the sad truth for a lot of people who are overweight. There are things that you think someone should just be doing, but they’re so heavy they can’t even do that exercise.

That must be really discouraging. When people are telling you it’s easy, just do this, but actually-

'Actually, yeah, I’m too big to ride the exercise bike, sorry.' That is discouraging. I think when you’re in that kind of position you really kind of need to get in shape to get in shape. And that’s kind of how I feel now. Now that I’ve gotten so far with VR, I’m not only going to continue and keep doing it and probably do more of it, and push myself harder in VR, but it’s also gotten me to the place where other things I like doing, like cycling outside, and rowing in my garage, or swimming more often—it’s so much more appealing. Now that VR has gotten me addicted to exercise and energized by exercise, I’m excited about other forms of exercise I can now actually do myself, because VR has gotten me to a point where I can.

What’s your favorite song to play in Soundboxing?

...I think my favorite track that I will always be doing every morning is It's the End of the World as We Know It. That’s a good just, wake up, get your body moving, get your arms up and down and everywhere in the room.

I’ll try that one next.

Just have fun, hit the beats, don’t worry if you miss a beat, just keep going. Keep sweating.

That’s my standout track. And just, when you’re in there and the visor’s on, and you have your headphones on, and you’re moving and sweating and having fun, just keep having fun. Don’t worry about what you look like, don’t worry if you’re getting it perfectly. Just have fun, hit the beats, don’t worry if you miss a beat, just keep going. Keep sweating. And I’m living proof, and I promise you, if you keep at it—and obviously yes, drink lots of water and control your calories a little, that’s also something that’s important we don’t leave out, it wasn’t just VR that did it. I stayed a little lower carb, and watched my calories to less than 2,000 a day.

So I’ll have to cut back on beer.

Yeah, luckily I managed to do that, and a lot of water, a lot of green tea. I cut out coffee, and I did less than 2,000 calories a day.

It’s good to bring this up to close out, that it’s a whole lifestyle change, there’s no one magic solution.

Yeah, this wasn’t the magic thing and this was all I did, but I will say, and aside from the water and the discipline, you know, just mental focus and staying the course, it really was primarily 90 percent Soundboxing that did it. Obviously I do a lot of walking, a lot of running around, a lot of travel, I do hike from time to time. I’d like to be doing more, but really Soundboxing on Vive—it genuinely saved my life. And people keep asking about this, and I’m happy to keep telling this story and encouraging other people to try it out.