Many people have tried fad diets, exercise programmes, diet
pills and other methods but the battle continues. Now, a new study suggests
that watching an avatar model weight-loss behaviour in a virtual community
might help some women shed pounds in the real world.
"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, PhD, an associate professor of prevention
and community health at the George Washington University School of Public
Health and Health Services (SPHHS). "This small study suggests that
virtual reality could be a promising new tool for building healthier
If proven effective, such a program might offer an
inexpensive way to help millions of Americans—including overweight men--learn
the skills and behaviour they need to lose weight over the long run.
Previous research had suggested that using virtual reality
to model skills or provide reinforcement was effective. For example, people who
watched an avatar that resembled them run on a treadmill were more likely to
exercise the next day than if they watched an unfamiliar avatar, according to a
Stanford University study.
Napolitano, who did the study while at Temple University's
Center for Obesity Research and Education, in collaboration with Temple's
Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine, and her colleagues,
wondered if avatars could be used as a tool to model weight loss behaviour for
To find out, the team first conducted a survey among 128
overweight women. Most of them had tried to lose weight during the last year
and the majority had never used a virtual reality game. Despite the fact that
most of these women had no experience using virtual reality or even playing
online games, the researchers found that 88 percent said they would be willing
to use a program with an avatar modelling habits that might give them an edge
in the battle to lose weight.
Many of the study participants thought that watching an
avatar could help them visualize and then put in place healthy behaviour, such
as taking a walk every day or picking healthy options when food shopping. And
in fact, theory and research tells us that modelling or seeing the steps one
needs to take in order to achieve a desired goal makes behavioural change
easier to accomplish, Napolitano said.
But to test the concept, the team first had to create videos
that showed an avatar in a variety of different situations such as walking on a
treadmill or navigating a cart through the aisles of a grocery store. The end
result was a partnership from the treatment side drawing on Napolitano's
expertise as well as the experts on the technical programming front to show the
avatars in action. Using their extensive expertise in virtual reality, Director
Antonio Giordano, MD, PhD, and Giuseppe Russo, PhD, of Temple's Sbarro
Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine, developed a virtual
reality simulation featuring such an avatar.
"With our vast experience in creating custom virtual
reality environments for eHealth, we were able to assist Dr. Napolitano in this
pilot study from the technical point of view," said Russo. "This
study is a perfect example of how virtual reality can be used in promoting
How the study was
Given that not all the woman who participated were avid tech
users, the team created a DVD that showed the avatar in four real-world
environments. The women did not have to manipulate the avatar, they just
watched the video; however they did pick out the skin colour and shape of the
avatar to more closely resemble their own appearance--a feature that might help
the study participants visualize and learn a new behaviour, Napolitano said.
In the next part of the trial, the team enrolled eight
overweight women in a four-week pilot test to see if watching the videos could
help these women learn new skills that could lead to weight loss. The women
came to the clinic once a week and watched a 15-minute DVD featuring an avatar
demonstrating healthy weight loss behaviours.
For example, in one lesson the women watched the avatar
sitting down for dinner and learned about portion sizes. Participants watched
as the avatar viewed a plate with a serving size that was too large and one
that was just right. In another lesson, they watched an avatar walk with
moderate intensity on a treadmill and learned the walking pace needed to help
with weight loss goals, Napolitano said. The women in this pilot study also set
weight-loss and exercise goals and kept a food and exercise log.
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. The virtual "model" was the key
to helping participants break healthy behaviours into manageable steps,
And after four weeks of treatment, the women in this pilot
study had lost an average of 3.5 pounds, a fairly typical amount for
traditional diet plans, Napolitano said. However, the researchers 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.
Additional studies must be conducted in order to solidify
these early findings and show that men and women who use the tool really do
lose weight and maintain that loss. "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," said Napolitano.
"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