A Healthy Avatar Could Equal A Healthy You

By: CBS News (Posted by Melissa Brunner)
By: CBS News (Posted by Melissa Brunner)

(CBS News) Watching an avatar of yourself working out may be a great way to inspire you to lose weight.

A new study published on July 1 in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology showed that women who watched a video on healthy weight-loss habits featuring a character that looked like themselves were able to lose weight.

"This pilot study showed that you don't have to be a gamer to use virtual reality to learn some important skills for weight loss," author Melissa Napolitano, 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. "This small study suggests that virtual reality could be a promising new tool for building healthier habits."

About 35.7 percent of the U.S. adult population is obese, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Being obese can put you at higher risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, which are some of the leading causes of preventable death.

The American Medical Association declared obesity a disease in June in an effort to get doctors to focus on the fact that excessive weight is a disease, not just a lifestyle choice.

Previous studies have shown that virtual reality has been beneficial in encouraging people to do certain behaviors. One Stanford study showed that participants who watched a character that looked like themselves running on a treadmill were more likely to exercise the next day.

Napolitano and her team asked 128 women if they were willing to test out a virtual reality game to help them lose weight. Eighty-eight percent said yes, even if the majority had no experience using virtual reality or playing online games.

Next, eight overweight women were shown a 15-minute DVD video on healthy weight-loss behaviors featuring an avatar that resembled them. The subjects could not control the characters in the video, but they could change the physical features like the skin color and body shape so it looked more like them.

The women watched the DVD once a week for four weeks. Videos include their avatar sitting down at dinner, and taught the viewer about portion sizes. Another one showed the avatar walking on a treadmill at a moderate intensity pace, demonstrating the amount of exercise needed to lose weight. The women were also instructed to set weight-loss and exercise goals and keep a food journal.

At the end of the study period, the women lost 3.5 pounds, which is about the average amount lost by a person on a traditional diet plan. The study did not have a control group, nor did it check if the women maintained the weight loss for a longer period of time.

"More scientific research studies to reveal when they (avatars) are truly beneficial and when they are not," Robert Radwin, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained to USA Today. He was not involved with the study.

Napolitano acknowledges more research on the topic needs to be done. She hopes that future studies can look into whether using the avatar program can help women permanently lose more weight in the long run.

"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."

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