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Can Hi-Tech Avatars Promote Real-Life Weight Loss?

Virtual sessions on portion control and exercise helped women in small pilot study

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, July 1 (HealthDay News) -- Watching an avatar exercise and learn healthy habits in a virtual community might help people shed excess weight, a small new study suggests.

An avatar is the graphical or physical representation of the user, in video games or online, for instance.

"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," Melissa Napolitano, an associate professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, said in a university news release.

She added that the findings suggest "that virtual reality could be a promising new tool for building healthier habits."

The new study included eight overweight women who once a week watched a 15-minute DVD featuring an avatar demonstrating healthy weight-loss behaviors. In one lesson the avatar sat down for dinner and learned about portion sizes. In another lesson, the avatar used a treadmill and learned the walking pace needed to lose weight.

At the end of four weeks, the women had lost an average of 3.5 pounds, which Napolitano called a fairly typical amount for traditional diet plans. But it's hoped that by watching the avatar, people using this type of program would be much more likely to establish long-term healthy habits and keep the weight off for good, she 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," 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 appeared in the July 1 issue of the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.

If further studies show that this type of program is effective, it may offer an inexpensive way for millions of overweight and obese men and women to learn the skills and behaviors they need to lose weight and keep it off, Napolitano said.

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