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How the virtual world of avatars empowered women to lose weight

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Watching avatars in the virtual world helps women lose weight.

Research from the George Washington University shows watching avatars lose weight could teach skills needed to drop those unwanted pounds. The pilot study suggests virtual reality could translate to real life weight loss success.

Investigators for the study say if the small study proves effective, the finding could mean an inexpensive way for millions of Americans to lose weight.

Avatars as weight loss models

Melissa Napolitano, PhD, an associate professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) said in a press release watching Avatars lose weight teaches important skills and you do not have to be a 'gamer' to do it.

The program targets behavioral changes in addition to healthy eating, both of which are both important for weight loss success.

Dieters watch avatars that look like them. Previous research from Stanford University found when people watch themselves running on a treadmill they were more likely to exercise the next day as opposed to watching an unfamiliar avatar.

Napolitano, who did the study while at Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education, in collaboration with Temple’s Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine wanted to see if avatars could also help teach overweight women weight loss behaviors.

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The researchers surveyed 128 overweight women who had been unsuccessful at losing weight to find out if they would be interested in the program. Most had never played a virtual reality game.

Eighty-eight percent of the women responded that they were willing to try and said they thought watching an avatar shop for healthy foods or take a walk each day could give them tools to make changes.

The researchers put together video games showing virtual women navigate shopping carts through the grocery store, walking on a treadmill and other situations.

Napolitano teamed up with director Antonio Giordano, MD, PhD, and Giuseppe Russo, PhD, of Temple’s Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine who then developed the virtual reality avatars.

For women with lower technical skills, the team put together a DVD for the women to watch that showed the avatar in 4 different ‘real world’ environments. The avatars were able to be customized to resemble skin color and shape of the women watching the DVD.

Next, 8 overweight women came to the clinic each week to watch a DVD of an avatar practicing healthy eating behaviors. The video was 15-minutes long and showed the women how to choose healthy food portions – how much is too much and what portion is ‘just right’ and what pace to walk on a treadmill for weight loss.

After 4-weeks the women lost an average of 3.5 pounds. The hope is learning healthy eating behaviors from avatars will translate into useful tools for the long-term to help he women keep weight off.

The study, “Using Avatars to Model Weight Loss Behaviors: Participant attitudes and technology development,” is published in the July 1 Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology. The finding suggests watching an avatar in the virtual world could be a successful tool for men and women to lose weight. Larger studies are needed to confirm the finding.

J Diabetes Sci Technol 2013;7(4):1057–1065