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Women Lose Weight With Help From Avatar

Could an avatar modeling weight-loss behavior help you fight the flab? Perhaps, according to US researchers whose pilot study suggests a virtual world "alter ego" may help some women lose weight in the real world. If confirmed with further research, the approach may also offer a cost-effective alternative to "live" group or personal weight-loss training.

Estimates indicate some two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese and many are struggling to get their weight down and keep it down, despite trying a multitude of pills, fads, diets and exercise plans.

Now a new pilot study published online in the July issue of the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, finds there is a high level of interest in using a virtual reality "alter ego" or avatar as an aid to weight loss, with initial results showing promise.

First author Melissa Napolitano, associate professor of prevention and community health at The George Washington University (GWU) School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), says in a statement that virtual reality could be a promising new tool for people who want to lose weight and adopt healthier lifestyles:

"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," she explains.

Using virtual reality to model skills or provide reinforcement can be effective.

For example, research published in 2012 suggests that when individuals strongly identify with a cyber representation of themselves, known as an "avatar", it can influence their health and appearance.

And researchers at Stanford University found that people who watched avatars resembling themselves running on treadmills were more likely to exercise the next day than if they had watched unfamiliar avatars.

For their study, Napolitano and colleagues wanted to find out if avatars could help overweight women acquire weight-loss behaviors.

Their study was in two phases. The first phase was an online survey of 128 overweight women to get their reactions to the idea of observing an avatar modeling healthy weight-loss habits as a way to help them lose weight.

Although the women who completed the survey had been trying to lose weight in the previous 12 months and most had never used a virtual reality game or program, 88% said they would be willing to try it if it might help them lose weight.

Many of the respondents agreed that an avatar could help them visualize and then practise weight-loss behaviors, such as taking a walk every day or choosing healthy options when shopping for food.

Napolitano says there is evidence that seeing or copying the steps that lead to a desired goal can make it easier for people to change their habits.

The second phase involved developing and testing avatar-based technology modeling weight-loss behaviors such as taking exercise and practising portion control.

The technology was developed at Temple University in Philadelphia, where Napolitano conducted the study before transferring to GWU.

For the second phase, the team recruited eight women to take part in a four-week usability test. The women were asked to set weight-loss goals and keep a food and exercise diary.

For each of the four weeks, the women attended a clinic where they watched a 15-minute video of an avatar demonstrating healthy weight-loss behavior.

For instance, one demonstration showed the avatar taking her place at the dinner table, looking at various dishes, considering portion sizes, rejecting ones that were too large and choosing the right portion size.

Another demonstration shows the avatar walking on a treadmill, and learning the correct, moderate intensity pace to help with her weight-loss goals.

At the end of the four weeks, the women on average lost 3.5 pounds (1.6 kilos).

Most of the women said the avatars were helpful, and they all said they would recommend the program and that it influenced their diet and exercise behavior.

Napolitano says the average weight loss was fairly typical for a four-week program, but they hope that watching the avatars model the healthy weight-loss behaviors will be more likely to help the women maintain their new healthy habits in the longer term and keep the weight off.

The team believes that the more the avatar resembles the user, the more likely they are able to identify with it and model what it demonstrates.

Although the women could not interact with their avatar, they could pick out some basic variables like skin color and shape. Napolitano says this helps the user visualize and learn the new behavior.

Co-author Giuseppe Russo, one of the experts on the technical programming team at Temple's Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine, who helped develop the avatar virtual reality simulation, says:

"This study is a perfect example of how virtual reality can be used in promoting human health."

Napolitano says their study is just a "first step", and more studies are now needed to confirm and consolidate these findings, and also show that men and women would both find avatars a useful aid to losing weight and maintaining weight-loss.

"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," she adds.

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