Virtual training among several people may reduce psychosocial stress and anxiety, a new study suggests. The study indicates that physical exercise benefits our overall well-being. But for some, such as neurological patients, people suffering from cardiovascular diseases, and hospitalised patients physical exercise is not feasible, and might even be too dangerous. However, similar effects may be brought about using Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR).

"While a moderate amount of exposure to stress might be beneficial, repeated and increased exposure can be detrimental to our health (sic)." said researcher Dalila Burin.

Initially designed for entertainment, IVR has attracted interest from the academic community because of its potential use for clinical purposes, since it allows the user to experience a virtual world through a virtual body.

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In a previous study, the team found that looking at a moving virtual body displayed in a 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 developed, just like after real physical activity.

In a follow-up study, the same benefits were also found in healthy elderly subjects after 20-minute sessions that took place twice a week for six weeks. In the current study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the researchers explored the effect on stress, adding another level to the beneficial effects of virtual training.

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Young healthy subjects, while sitting still, experienced a virtual training displayed from a 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 showed a decreased psychosocial stress response and lower levels of anxiety after the virtual training, comparable to what happens after real exercise

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