The geek's guide to fitness

There are a lot of good things about being a geek. We're unabashedly passionate about things we love, we typically read a lot and we tend to have a lot of curiosity that keeps our minds sharp.

But let's be honest: A lot of us could be in much better shape. I put myself firmly in the camp of a nerdy guy that needs to be a lot more active, even though the idea pains me. I mean, why go for a run when I could watch Matt Smith run from Daleks on Doctor Who? Why get sweaty with real sports when I can boost my actions per minute in an esport like Dota 2? Who needs resistance bands when you can pretend to join the Resistance in Star Wars?

Trouble is, that kind of attitude isn't just unhealthy -- it could literally kill us.

It's not easy to turn that around, I know. Walking into a typical gym isn't usually fun. There's no leaderboard, and it feels like everyone else there is way over leveled. It's not unlike launching a game's online multiplayer for the first time and realizing that everybody else has already been playing for months and is better than you think you will ever be.

Personally, I'm embarrassed to walk into a gym. For a man in my 20s, my muscle strength sucks. I don't know how half of the gym equipment works and I'm too ashamed to ask.

There's a silver lining, though: There are geeky ways to get in shape, taking the things you love and using them to help make you harder, better, faster, stronger. To make your health more fun, gamify it. Assign goals and points to healthy activities (like minutes you're active or the amount of water you drink) and spend more time with entertainment that makes you move.

For example: You can burn a lot of calories playing virtual reality games.

Near the end of 2016, Job Stauffer, a VR fitness and wellness advocate who has spent many years working in the video game industry, says he was in the worst shape of his life. He was having debilitating headaches that he says were caused by being out of shape, overworked and over-stressed, and if he didn't turn his life around, things would get worse.

"My doctor said, 'If you don't start doing something about this, if you don't start focusing on yourself and your own body, wellness and fitness, you're going to die,'" Stauffer says. "Being told that I was working myself to death through video games and that I needed to find a way out or I was going to die, that was my wake-up call."

Around the same time, Stauffer was becoming increasingly interested in the rapidly growing VR space -- especially "room-scale" VR, which has players physically move around a room to play. "When you're in VR and your entire body and mind are engaged, and you're moving every muscle in your body by turning, jumping, raising your arms, you're actually burning calories," he says. "And that started to fascinate me."

Plant Nanny is a mobile game/app in which you can only water your virtual plant after you water yourself. (You know, by drinking water.)

Even games designed purely for fun, like the sci-fi shooting gallery Space Pirate Trainer, were giving him a workout. He realized that by adding some resistance (starting with 1- to 2-pound weighted gloves), he could take those results even further.

Eventually, Stauffer found Sound Boxing, a VR kickboxing game where you punch incoming objects in time with a YouTube video of your choice. Just search for that latest K-pop or Hatsune Miku track you've been listening to on repeat and work your muscles while you bob your head to the beat.

I've also been using games to help me be more active. On the VR side of things, I've been using the VirZoom exercise bike to make the act of pedaling far more interesting by using it as a way to control a tank, a race car or a Pegasus. (It's an admittedly pricey accessory at $399, on top of pricey VR equipment, but the company recently introduced a cheaper sensor that attaches to any standard stationary bike.) I've also been using a smart watch to encourage me to stand up more often and to drink far more water than I was previously.

Time flies while you're having fun. You might not think of working out as being enjoyable, but Stauffer says that there is a time dilation effect with good VR games. It might feel like you're jumping and ducking your way through a game level for only 10 minutes when you've really been keeping your body active for 30. In this case, losing track of time like that can be good for you.

Stauffer has lost more than 70 pounds on his personal fitness journey, but getting healthier isn't just about pounds lost or calories burned. If you're like me, doctors might actually tell you that you're underweight, so you actually want the scale to go up, not down.

"We [geeks] are often not in the best shape, and we can be very introverted about our bodies," Stauffer says. "We feel like we're not the jocks, we don't go to the gym." But "now is the best time to really start utilizing this stuff. Don't be ashamed to give it a shot."

Stauffer and I are far from the first nerds to discover that we need to get in better shape. Fellow nerd John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars and Turtles All the Way Down, documented his own fitness transformation in 2016 on a YouTube channel called 100Days. He and a friend spent 100 days working with trainers, doctors and nutritionists to learn about being healthier and putting that knowledge into practice. Then he shared that knowledge with his YouTube audience.

Another nerd, Steve Kamb, started Nerd Fitness, where you can find self-paced fitness courses inspired by geeky topics. For example, he offers a free workout based on the infamous Konami Code.

Think of it like leveling up in a role-playing game. The more you jump in a game like Skyrim, the bigger your stamina meter grows. The bigger the meter is, the more you're able to do every day before needing to sleep.

With that in mind, here are some suggested ways to ease yourself into a healthier lifestyle. You should talk to a doctor and possibly a dietitian before getting too serious, but being healthier isn't something you should keep putting off. Start slow but steady and you might be surprised at how smoothly you're able to level up.

Level 1

Get some basic tracking apps: If you need to drink more water every day (and guess what? You probably do), consider downloading an app like WaterMinder or Plant Nanny to your smartphone. WaterMinder is simple but effective (and it has a useful Apple Watch app) while Plant Nanny is more like a game -- you can only water your potted plant when you water yourself.

If you want to start minding what you eat, apps like Lose It or MyFitnessPal will help you track your foods and help determine what you might need to change about your diet. You don't have to become a vegetarian; just be smart about what goes into your stomach.

Gamify your calorie burn: As you're active throughout the day, even by just walking up stairs or to the train station, you're burning calories. Most of us do so without really noticing, but a few smart phone apps turn those burned calories into game play currency. Wokamon, for example, lets you use those calories to feed a Tamagotchi-like digital pet. Walkr uses them to let you explore the universe, going where no man has gone before.

Pro tip: While most of these apps sync with Fitbit accessories, your smartphone also probably tracks the steps you're taking.

Just get outside and catch some Pokemon: The Pokemon Go craze might have died down since last year, but it's still a good excuse to just get out of the house and get some sunlight.

Don't forget mental health: Stress can lead to larger health issues. If you need to re-center, you might have luck meditating with an app like Headspace.

Level 2

Be more active and have fun doing it: Now that you're tracking your health, start pushing yourself. If you're a big fan of zombie stories like The Walking Dead, then you might love Zombies, Run!, an audio adventure app that paces your run by throwing you into scenarios in which you have to escape the undead. If you're more of a fantasy fan, Fit For Battle accomplishes a similar task, but set in a medieval RPG world that can be saved by the power of your high-intensity workouts.

This might also be a good time to look up some workouts you can do at home, like this Angry Birds workout from Nerd Fitness.

Level 3

Accessorize: If you've been making progress, reward yourself with some loot. New tech is exciting, and if you're like me, it will be a good incentive to keep going. Invest in a Fitbit or similar type of smartwatch that will help you track your goals and maybe improve your workouts.

A lot of mobile apps and games will sync with your tracker. If you play sports games on consoles, NBA 2K18 actually links with the Fitbit app to give you daily boosts for your custom career character, which is pretty neat.

Level 4-A

Get virtual: If it makes sense for your budget and living space, it might be time to invest in some virtual reality gear. Sure, there's the added benefit of opening yourself up to a lot of cool, unique video game experiences that you won't find elsewhere, but there are also a lot of games that have the potential to improve your physical and mental health -- sometimes by accident.

Not sure what to play? The Virtual Reality Institute of Health and Exercise independently studies and rates various VR experiences and compares them to more traditional workouts. For example, the game Knockout League is equivalent to rowing and burns 8-10 calories per minute.

VR isn't cheap, though, and the technology will be both more affordable and more accessible in the future, so you won't be shamed for waiting a bit. Which brings us to ...

Level 4-B

Get into the game: If you decide that VR isn't for you right now, then find some other ways to gamify an active lifestyle. If you have a group of friends who want to get active with you, then now might be a great time to get into paintball or laser tag, both of which will encourage you to run around while wearing heavy vests.

Get some equipment: This might be as simple as getting a treadmill so you can run while you binge-watch Stranger Things on Netflix, but you might want something more game-y. Like a tgoma smart trampoline from Springfree, which connects to a tablet for games that require you to jump.

The Stealth Core Trainer is the most fun I've ever had doing planks, but it's expensive for a seemingly simple workout tool ($200-$300 depending on the model), and the only game it currently features gets old after awhile. On top of that, it's really easy to cheat your way to the top of the online leaderboard. Still, if money is no object, it's a novel way to make a challenging workout more enjoyable.

If you've got 'em from their glory days, you could also bust out your Dance Dance Revolution mats and your Rock Band drums to get an "old-fashioned" video game workout.

Level 5

Take VR further: Who needs a gym membership if you just turn your house into a virtual gym? On the cheaper end of the scale, grab some weighted gloves and and a weighted vest, which will help you push harder during your gaming/workouts. On the more expensive end? VirZoom, which puts your feet on an exercise bike but your eyes in the countryside. Or a snowy war zone. Or the wild West. VirZoom features a fun collection of games designed to make sure you have fun as you pedal.

The Future

Geeky fitness isn't stopping here, and there is plenty to look forward to.

VR company The Void is turning large, physical spaces into intricate VR playgrounds. While they're mostly designed for pure fun at the moment, many of the adventures could be good for staying active. The most recent one? "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire." You know you'd check that out if they ever open a Dallas location.

There's also a high probability that gyms will start investing in more VR equipment. VirZoom is already working with gyms, for instance.

Face it: You're probably never going to have one of those super fancy Icaros VR planking machines in your house. But if a local gym had one? Sign me up for that.

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