Virtual training may reduce psychosocial stress and anxiety, new research finds

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A new study explored how Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) demonstrates similar effects to exercise in those patients who aren’t able to participate in such activity due to health issues.

The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, was conducted by researchers from Tohuku University’s Smart-Aging Research Center (IDAC) in Sendai, Japan.

The current study follows up on previous research where investigators found that looking at a moving virtual body displayed in first-person perspective induced physiological changes. Heart rates increased/decreased coherently with the virtual movements, even though the participants remained still. Acute cognitive and neural benefits took place, just like after real physical activity. In another 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, researchers explored the effect on stress, adding another level to the benefits 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 kilometers per hour 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 biomarker indicating the levels of neuroendocrine stress. In addition, 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," said Dalila Burin, PhD, of the IDAC, who developed the study, in a statement. "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."