New Study: Watching an Avatar May Help You Lose Weight

by Amanda MacMillan


courtesy of Temple Universitycourtesy of Temple UniversityCLARIFICATION: We didn't say that watching Spielberg's Avatar can help you lose weight. (Although star Zoe Saldana's rockin' body can certainly be an inspiration!) Rather, we said watching AN avatar can help -- specifically, a computer-generated character that looks like you, doing healthy things like walking on a treadmill and shopping for produce. That's according to a new study from Temple University, published on Monday in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.

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Researchers recruited eight overweight women who had been trying -- unsuccessfully -- to slim down for years. The women picked out physical characteristics (hair color, skin color, weight) for avatars designed to resemble them; then, once a week, they watched DVDs featuring their look-a-likes participating in healthy behaviors. In one session, the avatar learned about portion sizes at dinner, viewing a plate with a serving size that was too large and one that was just right. In another, the avatar walked with moderate intensity on a treadmill, demonstrating the walking pace needed to help lose weight.

After four weeks, the women had lost about 3.5 pounds -- about average for traditional diet plans. But the researchers hope that by watching their avatars continue to make healthy decisions on-screen, the women using this will be more likely to keep their healthy habits -- and their weight loss -- going in the long run.

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Previous research has suggested that this type of virtual reality can be an effective way to teach life skills -- and that it's more effective when the avatars actually look like their "students." And this new study shows that even women who aren't big into video games can benefit from programs that might use this technology in the future.

"You don't have to be a gamer to use virtual reality to learn some important skills for weight loss," said lead author Melissa Napolitano, PhD, now at George Washington University. "This small study suggests that virtual reality could be a promising new tool for building healthier habits," she adds, and an inexpensive one, at that.

What do you think -- would you try this type of weight-loss program?

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