You could lose weight when your avatar exercises

Researchers find that women who spend 15 minutes once a week watching an avatar demonstrate healthy weight loss behaviors end up losing on average 3.5 pounds in a month.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read
An avatar demonstrates walking at a moderate pace on a treadmill. Temple University Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine

When I was a varsity swimmer in high school, I was taught creative visualization, which is a fancy way of saying that I would sit in a quiet place, close my eyes, and imagine myself in an upcoming race -- stroke for stroke. I could feel the temperature of the water, the pounding of my heart, the overwhelming urge to breathe as I sliced through the water without once turning my head for air. It was a mental rather than physical exercise, and for me at least, it translated to faster racing times.

For years, researchers have investigated this phenomenon, and now a new little study out of Temple University's Center for Obesity Research and Education finds that watching an avatar model healthy behaviors can actually help women lose weight in the real world.

In the study, which appeared Monday in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, a team surveyed 128 overweight women and found that most had never played a virtual reality game but 88 percent would be willing to if doing so would help them lose weight.

They then enrolled eight of those women in a four-week pilot test to determine whether watching a 15-minute DVD once a week of a healthy avatar would have any impact on the women's lifestyle behaviors.

The women had some control over the appearance of the avatar they watched -- for instance, picking out skin color and body size to better resemble themselves. They then watched the avatars do all sorts of healthy activities, such as controlling portion sizes at dinner and walking at a good pace to help meet weight loss goals. At no point did they manipulate the avatars (for example, play a video game) in any way.

The women also set their own weight loss and exercise goals and tracked their progress using some old-fashioned food and exercise logs. And their efforts bore fruit. Over the course of the month, each participant lost on average 3.5 pounds, on par with a typical weight loss program.

"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 who led the study, said in a school news release. "This small study suggests that virtual reality could be a promising new tool for building healthier habits."

Napolitano, who now teaches at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, added that while the pilot study is very small, it's a "perfect example of how virtual reality can be used in promoting human health."

With some two-thirds of Americans being overweight or obese, sitting on a couch and watching an avatar do all the work may sound like the last thing the doctor ordered. But if the findings of this little study pan out in larger populations, that avatar could very well be the motivator to get off the couch, prep healthier foods, appropriately reduce portion sizes, and turn weight loss dreams into reality.