Can watching an avatar help you lose weight?

File photo.
File photo. Trae Patton/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

TORONTO – Expensive pills, fad diets, the latest trend in workout regimens. If you are one of the millions of Canadian women struggling to lose weight, a new study suggests that real-life results may be found in the virtual world.

U.S. researchers say that watching an avatar demonstrate healthy weight-loss behaviour in a virtual community may teach women the basic skills required to shed pounds.

The pilot project from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) surveyed 128 overweight women, most of whom had tried to lose weight in the last year and the majority of whom had never used a virtual reality game before.

The research team created a DVD that showed an avatar in four real-world environments. The women watched the video featuring an avatar that resembled their physical appearance.

Many of the study participants said that watching the avatar helped them visualize healthy behaviour, like choosing healthy items at the grocery store and taking daily walks, said Melissa Napolitano, an associate professor of prevention and community health at SPHHS.

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“Virtual reality could be a promising new tool for building healthier habits,” said Napolitano.

In the next phase of the trial, eight overweight women watched videos of avatars demonstrating healthy weight loss behaviours, over a four week period.

One lesson featured an avatar learning about meal portion sizes. Another video showed an avatar walking on a treadmill, to teach the study participants the exercise intensity required for losing weight.

After four weeks, the women lost an average of 3.5 pounds – an amount typical of traditional diet plans. The researchers hope, however, that by watching the virtual reality videos, the women in the program will be more likely to stick to the healthy habits for the long run.

“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.

The researchers said more studies are required to see if their early findings are truly effective when it comes to a sustainable weight loss program.

However, if the plan is effective, it could be expanded to women and men as an inexpensive way to help overweight individuals learn the skills and behaviours needed to lose weight and keep it off.

According to 2012 data from Statistics Canada, 4.7 million Canadians aged 18 and older are obese, meaning they have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and over. The obesity rate for Canadian women increased to 18 per cent in 2012, up from 14.5 per cent in 2003.

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According to Health Canada, obesity is not only a serious health concern – it increases the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers – it is also a significant economic concern. The economic costs of obesity ballooned to $4.6 billion in 2008, that figure is up 19 per cent from 2000. Health Canada officials said the 2008 figure is just a conservative estimate, as it only took into account the costs associated with the eight chronic diseases most often linked to obesity. Comparable studies put the economic cost to the Canadian economy at $7.1 billion.