Millions of Americans struggle with their weight and many face serious health issues due to obesity. Though it might seem easy for some to lose weight through cutting calories and increasing physical activity, there are countless others who find the challenge of getting into shape to be nearly impossible.
A new tool could help. Research conducted at Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education in collaboration with Temple’s Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine and published in the July Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology found that viewing an avatar model living a successful and healthy weight loss lifestyle in virtual reality setting community can be an extremely effective motivator for weight loss.
Even in VR, Weight Loss Is Not a Game
According to lead researcher Melissa Napolitano, PhD, an associate professor of prevention and community health, “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.” Those familiar with the study believe virtual reality could be a powerful tool for promoting healthy habits.
In addition to its potential effectiveness, there are other benefits to the program. First, it’s inexpensive, so those who are unable to afford gym memberships, weight loss surgery, and other expensive tools could still benefit. It could also be effective for men and women, something not always the case when it comes to weight loss tools which often target only women.
Napolitano built on previous research that showed avatars affect human behavior regarding physical activity. She and her colleagues contemplated whether avatars could be used as a tool to model weight loss behavior overall. The study began with 128 overweight women who had attempted to lose weight within the previous year. The majority had not been exposed to virtual reality gaming, but most (a whopping eighty-eight percent) were willing to use a weight loss program based in virtual reality.
Study participants believed watching the avatar would help them visualize and incorporate healthier behaviors into their lives. According to Napolitano this makes sense, as research has shown that when subjects see the steps needed to take action they are better able to achieve their goals.
Creating Your Healthy Living Avatar
Napolitano tested the virtual reality theory by partnering with virtual reality experts to create videos showing avatars in various healthy situations. Study participants were not required to manipulate their avatars, but were able to choose the shape and skin color so their avatars resembled their own appearance.
Once the videos were developed, eight women were enrolled in a four-week pilot test to watch the videos and determine if those videos helped them learn new skills. Each woman set personal weight loss and exercise goals, and then one time per week, went through a 15 minute experience featuring her avatar demonstrating weight loss behavior, such as walking, shopping for healthy food, and eating proper portions.
At the conclusion of the four weeks, study participants had lost an average of three and a half pounds. This is typical of people participating in a weight loss program, but Napolitano beleives that this method of using VR will help people on a long-term basis to create better habits and, ultimately, live up the the avatar they have created that is going through the challenge of getting healthy ‘with’ them. Basically, the principal plays off the fact that if the VR version of yourself can do it, so can the real version.
According to Napolitano, this is the first in a series of studies that could help people use technology to gain success at weight loss. As virtual reality continues to evolve and developers match consumer demand for more fitness applications, it won’t be long before people are turning to a VR world for results instead of the gym!
-Michael De Medeiros
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