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Friday, April 12, 2024

Fat, Tired, and Insecure: Supernatural VR Makes Working Out More Accessible Than Ever

Gyms have never been my friend. Like, presumably, 99.3 percent of the adult human population, I hate working out. I scrutinize myself in gym mirrors, berate my form and technique, and imagine each and every person in any fitness space secretly laughing at me for even attempting to breathe their smoothie-fueled, protein-powder-laden air. I tell myself that I’m fat, I’m old, and I’m out of shape, and all of these are at least a little true. I dread actually going into any sort of gym or participating in any sort of fitness activity—but when I don’t do it, I beat myself up for being a loser. As it turns out, I’m not alone in any of this.

I know this because, recently, I’ve found myself lurking quietly in the 58,000-member-strong Facebook community for Supernatural, a workout app available on Meta’s Quest virtual reality device. While most fitness-oriented groups are seemingly full of burpee monsters and Weight Watchers warriors, the Supernatural group is more like an island of gym-shy misfit toys.

There, I’ve met people like Joanne, who declined to give her last name to protect her privacy and who lives in Manitoba, where the winters are long, dark, and cold. She found Supernatural after she learned she was going blind. She explains that she’s “extremely near-sighted” and uses a 38-inch TV as a computer screen 1.5 feet away. Because the Quest’s lenses are so close, she feels like she can see everything better, and she says that any benefits from Supernatural far outweigh any strain VR might potentially cause her eyes. She says she couldn’t drive herself to the gym anymore, and she hated relying on others to drive her around. “Supernatural kept me sane,” she says, “and I’m also in better shape than I have ever been.”

There’s also Alex Duffey, who has been overweight his entire life and who says, at his heaviest, he weighed 550 pounds. He says last year he and his wife started fostering a child, and he quickly realized he wanted to be around for his son. “I’ve had coaches before, and when I get the look of pity from them, that’s the end of it,” he says. “Don’t judge me when you haven’t lived my life. Supernatural allowed me to feel safe and guided without shame.”

A user named Johnny Rohrbeck told me he’s “seen more diversity on the Supernatural Facebook group” than he “does at church,” and I believe him. I’ve watched 75-year-old grandmas post sweaty selfies while trans teens who might not feel at home anywhere thank Supernatural’s users for accepting them as they are. There are people who use the app in wheelchairs and military veterans with PTSD who like that the app lets them block out the rest of the world. There are people recovering from eating disorders that praise the Quest headset for literally keeping them from looking at their bodies while they work out. Hard-working ER doctors and single moms come together to commiserate about how hard it is to find time to exercise, while people living dozens if not hundreds of miles from the nearest town check in, looking for a sense of community.

Supernatural creator Chris Milk says his team always intended to make a fitness app for the broadest possible audience, but he adds that he is constantly learning more about what users need and want from the program. While the app launched with accessibility features like flexibility calibration, he says that hearing from users with, say, a fear of heights has led Supernatural to develop a broader version of the in-game platform that users appear to stand on. Developers have built a “no squat” mode for people who might not be able to get up and down as easily, and earlier this year, they launched a “front facing” mode for users with limited mobility.

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Supernatural even brought on one of its community’s most charismatic members, Chesney Mariani, as a guest coach. Many, many current Supernatural users say seeing the plus-sized Mariani in the app’s ads and on the site convinced them to join. A user named Tommy Curtis told me, “When I first joined, my first thought was, ‘This is for skinny people. This is not made for me. I don't have room to move in my apartment.’” When he saw Mariani, though, he thought, “She was able to make this work, and if she can do it, I can do it.”

It’s a message that rings true with Mariani herself, who says she’s always felt uncomfortable in gyms. As she explains, “You see people with their phones out, and I don't know if they're taking a picture of me. Are they recording a video to throw up on the internet and say, ‘Look at this chick trying to work out. It's not really working out for her, is it?’ I’ve been laughed at just walking down the sidewalk.” When she was asked to become a guest coach, she says, it validated her struggles and experiences. “Being able to coach as a plus-sized individual,” Mariani says, “it made me feel powerful. Not in the sense that I was going to take over the world, but more that it made me feel seen.”

Supernatural coach Leanne Pedante says that “one of the superpowers of VR is that it allows people a way to express what feels authentic to them and what feels like part of their identity without attaching it to what the rest of the world sees.” When a Supernatural user is in their headset, she explains, they’re not looking to others for reassurance that they’re powerful, valuable, or even worthy. Getting to embody that power during a workout, she says, “is hugely life-changing for anyone who feels a disconnect between their inner identity and what the world experiences.”

“​​When I’m in the headset, I feel like I have perfect form,” Rohrbeck told me. “I feel like a Master Jedi. I have an emotional sense of space, and I think, ‘I’m a badass, I’m a badass.’” If he watches a video of himself actually doing the workout later, he says, he’ll think “Oh, goodness, I don’t quite look the way I felt.” But, hey, he adds, “I’ll take that feeling any day. That’s what keeps me coming back.”

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