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Watching an avatar may help some lose weight

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It can help to have a weight-loss body when you’re trying to drop pounds – even if it’s a virtual buddy. When women watched an avatar act out healthy behaviors, they lost an average of about a pound a week.

“This small study suggests that virtual reality could be a promising new tool for building healthier habits,” said Melissa Napolitano, an associate professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, in a press release.

“You don’t have to be a gamer to use virtual reality to learn some important skills for weight loss.”

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As virtual reality has become more widespread, the platform has found uses in unlikely places, including healthcare. A number of studies have shown that people tend to identify with avatars that resemble them and that interacting with those avatars can help patients deal with conditions ranging from eating disorders to PTSD.

Avatars can also shape behaviors: In one study, people were more likely to exercise the next day if they watched an avatar that looked like them run on a treadmill.

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For the new pilot study, Napolitano and colleagues enlisted eight overweight women and allowed them to pick avatars they thought resembled their size and skin color. Then, once a week during a 30-minute session, women watched their chosen avatar demonstrate behaviors that are known to lead to weight loss.

In one lesson, for example, the avatar learned about portion sizes by viewing a plate with too much food and one with just the right amount. In another video, the avatar walked on a treadmill at the right pace to lose weight.

After four weeks, participants had lost an average of 3.5 pounds, the researchers report today in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology. That’s about the same rate of weight-loss achieved through traditional kinds of diets.

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“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.”