Previous study has shown that virtual training provides immediate cognitive and neurological effects. A recent study, based on those findings, proposes that a comparable virtual training can help lower psychological stress and anxiety.
Physical activity improves our entire health. However, for some people, such as neurological patients, persons suffering from cardiovascular illness, and hospitalised patients, physical activity is either impossible or harmful. However, comparable effects may be achieved with Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR).
Despite being primarily created for amusement, IVR has piqued the academic community’s interest due to its potential clinical applications, as it allows the user to experience a virtual environment through a virtual body.
In the researchers’ previous study, they found that looking at a moving virtual body displayed in first-person perspective induces physiological changes. Heart rates increased/decreased coherently with the virtual movements, even though the young participants remained still. Consequently, acute cognitive and neural benefits occurred, just like after real physical activity.
Effect of virtual training on elderly subjects
In a followup study, the same benefits were also found on healthy elderly subjects after 20-minute sessions occurring twice a week for six weeks.
In the current study, the researchers explored the effect on stress, adding another level to the beneficial effects of virtual training. Young healthy subjects, while sitting 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 demonstrated that following the virtual training, there was a lowered psychosocial stress response and lower levels of anxiety, similar to what happens after physical 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.”
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