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Watching an Avatar of Yourself Losing Weight May Translate to Real Life: A Study

Jul 02, 2013 10:36 AM EDT

Have a hard time losing weight? Try an avatar, a new study suggests.

With an estimated two-thirds of all Americans overweight or obese, researchers from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) are trying a something new.

With previous research suggesting that using virtual reality to model skills or provide reinforcement is an effective way to adapt new habits, scientists decided to examine whether individuals trying to lose weight would succeed if shown a virtual version of themselves engaging in activities conducive to a healthier weight.

To find out, the team, led by Associate Professor of Prevention and Community Health at SPHHS Melissa Napolitano, first conducted a survey among 128 overweight women, most of who had tried to lose weight during the last year.

Despite the fact that most of these women had no experience using virtual reality or even playing online games, the researchers found that 88 percent said they would be willing to use a program with an avatar modeling habits that might give them an edge in the battle to lose weight.

In the next part of the study, the team enrolled eight overweight women in a four-week pilot test to see if watching the videos resulted in new skills to help them lose weight.

The women came to the clinic once a week and watched a 15-minute DVD featuring an avatar demonstrating healthy weight loss behaviors.

For example, in one lesson the women watched the avatar sitting down for dinner and learned about portion sizes. They watched as the avatar viewed a plate with a serving size that was too large and one that was just right.

In another part of the video, they watched an avatar walk with moderate intensity on a treadmill and learned the walking pace needed to help with weight loss goals, Napolitano said. The women in this pilot study also set weight-loss and exercise goals and kept a food and exercise log.

After four weeks of treatment, the women in the pilot study had lost an average of 3.5 pounds, a fairly typical amount for traditional diet plans, according to Napolitano.

However, the researchers hope that by watching the avatar, the women using this program will be much more likely to put healthy habits in place over the long run and keep off the weight for good.

Going forward, the researchers explained, they hope to build upon the results and further develop the concept.

"This is just the first step to show that women, even those who are not gamers, are interested in an avatar-based technology to help them with a weight-loss plan," Napolitano said. "We are excited by the potential of this technology as a scalable tool to help people learn the skills to be successful at weight loss over the long run."

The study, "Using Avatars to Model Weight Loss Behaviors: Participant attitudes and technology development," appears in the July 1 Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.

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