Weight Loss Help From Virtual Avatars
July 2, 2013

Study Finds That Virtual Reality Could Be Effective Weight Loss Tool

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Computer and video games have long been maligned for their role in creating the global obesity epidemic, but new research appearing in Monday's edition of the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology suggests virtual avatars could actually help encourage weight loss.

According to Emma Innes of the Daily Mail, researchers from the Temple University Center for Obesity Research and Education (CORE) in Philadelphia report that watching a virtual model exercising and eating smaller meals could encourage a person to follow suit.

"Researchers found that women who watched an avatar exercise, eat healthy and make measurable weight loss goals lost an average of 3.5 pounds over four weeks," explained USA Today reporter Fatimah Waseem.

That figure is consistent with traditional weight loss programs, Waseem said, but the study authors believe using virtual reality systems could "provide an inexpensive way for overweight men and women to learn the skills and behaviors needed to lose weight and keep it off."

Lead author Melissa Napolitano, who completed the research while at CORE and is currently an associate professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), and colleagues began by surveying 128 overweight women, most of whom had attempted to lose weight over the past year and the majority of which had never participated in a virtual reality game in an attempt to do so.

Even though few of the female study participants had experience using virtual reality or playing online games, 88 percent of them said they would be willing to use a program that featured an avatar that modeled habits with the potential to help them in the battle against obesity.

In order to test this theory, Napolitano and her associates enrolled some of the women in a four-week DVD course in which they watched a digital alter-ego of themselves on the computer. Through this avatar, which was fully customizable, the women learned about portion sizes, were instructed to walk at a moderate pace on a treadmill, and engage in other healthy dietary and exercise habits, Waseem said.

DVDs were selected because not all of the women who participated in the study were skilled technology users, and this format allowed them to simply watch instead of having to manipulate the avatar, the researchers said. Eight overweight women were recruited for this pilot test, which involved the participants traveling to a clinic once each week and watching the 15-minute virtual reality program. Each woman also set her own weight loss and exercise goals, and kept a food and exercise log throughout the four-week program.

"Based on theory and previous research, the team thought that watching the avatar in the virtual world might make it more likely women would practice those skills in real life," SPHHS officials said. "The virtual "model' was the key to helping participants break healthy behaviors into manageable steps," they continued, adding they 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; keep the weight off for good."

While additional research will be required to confirm this study's early findings, and to show that men and women who use avatars as weight loss instruments can actually shed pounds and keep them off, Napolitano said this was "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. 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."