Study: Computer avatar can help instill weight-loss behaviors

July 1, 2013 at 8:09 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- Watching an avatar model good weight-loss behavior in a virtual community might help some women shed pounds in the real world, U.S. researchers say.

It might offer an inexpensive way to help millions of overweight Americans -- also including men -- learn the skills and behavior they need to lose weight over the long run, they said.

"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," said Melissa Napolitano, a professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington. "This small study suggests that virtual reality could be a promising new tool for building healthier habits."

A survey among 128 overweight women found despite the fact most had no experience using virtual reality or even playing online games, 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.

Many of the study participants said they thought watching an avatar could help them visualize and put in place healthy behaviors such as exercise or making healthy food choices.

Both theory and research suggest modeling or seeing the steps one needs to take to achieve a desired goal makes behavioral change easier to accomplish, Napolitano said.

"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," she 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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