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Study: Avatars encourage women to lose weight

Monday - 7/1/2013, 3:58am  ET

WASHINGTON - A little virtual reality may help people lose weight in the real world.

Researchers at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services say a computer-generated figure - or avatar - can serve as an alter ego for dieters, enabling them to gain the skills necessary to drop pounds.

Their findings - published Monday, July 1, in the Journal of Diabetes and Science and Technology - add a new virtual element to the war on obesity.

The study was conducted in two parts. First, 128 women were surveyed about their interest in using an avatar as a weight loss tool. Although many had no experience with the concept, almost 90 percent said they would be excited to try it.

Melissa Napolitano, an associate professor of prevention and community health, says researchers then chose eight of the 128 women for their avatar test group.

Napolitano, the lead author of the study, says the participants came to her clinic once a week for a four-week period.

The visits were short, long enough for each woman to watch a 15-minute DVD featuring an avatar who looked like her. Each week, the avatar demonstrated a specific weight loss skill, from judging portion size to tackling mindless snacking, with narration provided by a dietitian

"Their avatar went through a grocery store, snacked at a dinner table, watched TV and also exercised on a treadmill," said Napolitano.

The avatar became a role model of sorts, re-enforcing proper behavior for losing weight and hitting a responsive chord with the participants, who lost an average of 3 1/2 pounds during the study while simply counting calories.

Most of the women had never played a computer-based video game before, but they adjusted quickly. At the end of the avatar-based program, all said they would recommend the program.

Napolitano cautions that this was an early pilot study and there was no control group. Still, the researchers think the avatar program -- created in collaboration with a technical team at Temple University -- has great potential.

Although the study used DVDs, Napolitano says the program could be used in other online formats. She also believes it offers doctors a low-cost way to help their overweight patients, describing it as another option "in their tool box."

And while all the participants in the study were female, Napolitano says she thinks the program should work just as well with men.

She says the George Washington team conducted an all-female study because the cost of creating avatars for both men and women was beyond their budget.

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