Can Watching an Avatar Translate to Real Weight Loss?

New study suggests it might be a promising way to shed excess pounds.

avatar study
July 05, 2013

The battle of the bulge continues to vex Americans, an estimated two-thirds of whom are overweight or obese. But a new study suggests that watching an avatar demonstrate weight-loss behavior in a virtual community might help some women shed pounds in real life.

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

If proven effective, such a program could offer an inexpensive way to help millions of Americans learn the skills and behaviors they need to sustain long-term weight loss.

Dr. Napolitano, who conducted 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 behavior for overweight women.

To find out, the team first conducted a survey among 128 overweight women, finding 88 percent of them would be willing to use a program with an avatar modeling habits that might give them an edge in the battle to lose weight.

To put it to the test, Dr. Napolitano and colleagues created videos that showed an avatar--which could be manipulated to mimic the user’s skin color and shape, helping participants better visualize and learn a new behavior--in a variety of situations, such as walking on a treadmill or navigating a cart through a grocery store.

“This study is a perfect example of how virtual reality can be used in promoting human health,” said Giuseppe Russo, of Temple’s Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine.

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 them learn new skills that could lead to weight loss. The women came to a clinic once a week and watched a 15-minute DVD featuring an avatar demonstrating healthy weight loss behaviors, like portion control and treadmill walking. The women also set weight loss and fitness goals and kept food and exercise logs.

After four weeks of treatment, they had lost an average of 3.5 pounds, a fairly typical amount for traditional diet plans, Dr. Napolitano said. However, the researchers hope that by watching the avatar, the women using this program will be much more likely to sustain weight loss.

More research is necessary, however.

“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,” Dr. 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.”

The study, “Using Avatars to Model Weight Loss Behaviors: Participant Attitudes and Technology Development,” appears in the July 1 edition of the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.